If the platform is not open-source, is the computer program copyrightable?

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    Please specify a location. It might depend on jurisdiction. For example, in the USA you can apply for software patents, while in the EU you cannot. I know copyright and patents are not the same thing, but it's an example how laws can vary across the globe.
    – vsz
    Jan 13, 2020 at 5:49
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    Open source programs are copyrighted and depends on that copyright to enforce their open source licenses. Software that are not copyrighted are public domain and anyone can do anything they want with it including making it closed source
    – slebetman
    Jan 13, 2020 at 7:27
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    I though software was only copyright in U.S. I've never heard of a patented software program? Jan 13, 2020 at 12:19
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    I find this fascinating: "An illegal number is a number that represents information which is illegal to possess, utter, propagate, or otherwise transmit in some legal jurisdiction. Any piece of digital information is representable as a number; consequently, if communicating a specific set of information is illegal in some way, then the number may be illegal as well." Jan 13, 2020 at 14:03
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    @slebetman There is no such thing as 'software that is not copyrighted'. Every authorial act is implicitly copyright to the author. There is only software that is explicitly public domain.
    – user207421
    Jan 14, 2020 at 9:13

4 Answers 4


All computer programs are not just copyrightable, they are protected by copyright as soon as they are put into fixed form (for example, as soon as I type it on my computer which will save it as a file on a disk). The copyright owner doesn't have to take any actions whatsoever to have a computer program protected by copyright. It’s not just computer programs, even many fonts are copyrighted because they are essentially computer programs.

BTW. What I just wrote is also protected by copyright. There are some licenses involved that I agreed to when I submitted it to this website, and which allow the website to publish and you to read this text, but I'm the copyright holder.

PS. There is a comment saying “computer programs are not literary works and therefore not copyrightable”. That may have been true or arguable in the 1980’s. It’s not true now.

PS. No, stack exchange doesn’t own the copyright to my post, I do. Unless I was an employee of the company and posted on their behalf. Stack exchange needs and has a license to publish this post.

  • 11
    @gatorback one such source is Art 4 of the WIPO Treaty “Computer programs are protected as literary works within the meaning of Article 2 of the Berne Convention” in conjunction with Art 2(2) of the Berne Convention, which allows (but doesn't require) that signatories require the work to be fixed in some material form first.
    – amon
    Jan 12, 2020 at 20:12
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    @marshalcraft: No the answer here is correct. The secenario you describe is due to the license you agreed when you posted. The license cannot be revoked, so SE may continue to use the content. However, SE are not considered the original creator of the content and do not "own" it in that sense. They cannot relicense it in any way incompatible with the Creative Commons license for instance, but the original author can. Jan 13, 2020 at 12:42
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    @NeilSlater - They already did. They took some content of mine that I uploaded under CC BY-SA 3.0 and now they are relicensing this under CC BY-SA 4.0 without any additional negotiation with me. Jan 13, 2020 at 20:29
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    @JirkaHanika, one could certainly claim that CC BY-SA 4.0 is in some way or another incompatible with CC BY-SA 3.0, according to a natural-language sense of the term "compatible". CC has a specific definition of "compatible" as it applies to their v3.0 and later licenses, however, and according to this, CC BY-SA 4.0 is compatible with CC BY-SA 3.0. The terms of BY-SA v3.0 (and v4.0) specifically allow relicensing under licenses that are compatible in this sense. Jan 14, 2020 at 7:40
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    @JohnBollinger - Aggregate works are actually exempt from that option. CC BY-SA 3.0 point 1(b) says "A work that constitutes a Collection will not be considered an Adaptation (as defined below) for the purposes of this License." Terms of CC BY-SA 4.0 are irrelevant because I never consented for anyone to apply it to my work. Jan 14, 2020 at 10:10

Except for limited circumstances, all computer programs are protected by copyright (an exception would be a program created by the US government). Therefore, to overcome copyright protection, the creator must grant a license to others to use and redistribute software with some specified degree of freedom. This is what gave rise to the myriad open source licenses. "Platform" might mean, e.g., distribution repository, operating system, or hardware. I don't know of any effective restriction (open vs. closed) on software copyright related to OS or hardware, but it is easy to limit distribution repositories so that, for example, "by uploading a program you grant any user total freedom to use and re-sell your software" or "by uploading a program you grant the repository an unlimited license to do what they want" (not actually good licenses, just there to illustrate the possibilities).


In addition to the copyright itself as answered in the other answers, it is worth noting that while the code itself falls under copyright, WHAT the program does is usually not part of the copyright.

Thus if you have implemented a program A to read data from an image and search for specific patterns in it your program itself is protected.

BUT if someone has a similar idea on how to do things, or manages to read your program code and then use that to implement program B which does the same thing (only with a slightly different code), this is normally NOT protected by the "automatic" copyright of program A (as it was not program A that was copied, but B consists only of code that has the same "idea" and "result" not the same "way").

This is at least the case within the EU. IF it is the same anywhere else (US as example) I'm not aware of.

  • 1
    Like so many others, this 'answer' considerably confuses the concepts of 'copyright' and 'patentability'.
    – MikeB
    Jan 13, 2020 at 16:46
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    @MikeBrockington care to expand on the confusion you're seeing? Jan 13, 2020 at 23:46
  • @TheLuckless Okay: "WHAT the program does is usually not part of the copyright" - not correct, what the program does is covered by patentability (or not) but never copyright.
    – MikeB
    Jan 14, 2020 at 10:49
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    @MikeBrockington Since the question is very short, it is safe to assume that many people coming to this page will also confuse copyright/patents/intellectual property. So a good answer should address the differences and that only a concrete work (like the lines of text forming the code) can be copyrighted, while the algorithm/idea behind it can be subject to patent laws, but not copyright. And the blurry line, if I write the same program as yours, just with different variable names or in a different programming language...
    – Falco
    Jan 14, 2020 at 11:00
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    @MikeBrockington I find your comment confusing. Are you claiming that the answer is wrong, and that what the program does IS covered by copyright?
    – barbecue
    Jan 14, 2020 at 19:49

It depends on what you mean by "computer program".

If you're referring to the algorithm that the computer operates, no, you can't copyright it, because it's a process or a system of rules, and those can't be copyrighted. However, if you're talking about the specific expression of an implementation of that process, then that can be copyrighted.

So, for instance, I could find an open source program that was implemented in Java, study it, then code my own proprietary version in Python that implements the exact same algorithms and procedures in a different language, and that wouldn't violate copyright. This has been done a number of time in the pen-and-paper RPG space, for instance - there have been a number of different retroclones of different editions of Dungeons and Dragons that use new wordings to express the same rules without violating copyright.

  • The process or system of rules that make up a game show can be copyrighted. So what happens if you release your algorithm as a game show first? Jan 14, 2020 at 13:33
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    @PaulMcCarthy Can the system of rules that make up a game show be copyrighted? I don't believe so. Do you have a cite?
    – prosfilaes
    Jan 14, 2020 at 14:38
  • Sorry you are correct, it is the logos, scripts and other related material that can be copyrighted, but not the actual rules/format. This begs the question, how is Simon Cowell still on tv? Jan 14, 2020 at 14:48
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    I'm not sure that studying a program and then writing your own version wouldn't violate copyright. That could arguably be a derivative work. That's why, although reverse engineering is perfectly legal, companies that reverse engineer software owned by other companies with expensive lawyers follow a "clean room" approach: one team decompiles the software and describes the algorithms in natural language, then an entirely separate team reimplements those algorithms without ever seeing the original code. Jan 14, 2020 at 17:16
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