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What can a programmer do once they found that someone has violated the terms of a software license for software that they have written?

I know there are companies (Adobe, Microsoft, Autodesk) that have entire teams looking for people and companies that are using their software illegally, but this is not something a programmer or a small company would have the funds for. These companies also have everything disclosed in their end user agreement and the fines are really high.

If a freelance programmer found out his client was using the software illegally (maybe they allow access to more users then they are allowed), what can they do?

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You get yourself a lawyer and sue for statutory damages of up to $30000 per work. You don't have to prove damages unless you want more than that.

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The basic steps as I understand them are:

  1. Talk to a lawyer
  2. Sue the party violating the license
  3. Prove it in court
  4. Collect damages

Why talk to a lawyer? The lawyer can review your license agreement and the contract and can determine if what the other party is doing is a violation and assess whether the evidence you have is strong enough to prove your case. The lawyer might even be able to advise you as to the wisdom of getting damages awarded vs. simply sending a cease and desist letter as this determination might depend on whether the defendant can actually pay a judgment.

Once you believe that the license and contract will stand up to scrutiny, there is a real violation going on, you have enough evidence to prove your case and the violator has funds to pay damages sufficient to merit a lawsuit, you sue them in civil court. Ask for whatever damages to which you feel you're entitled; statutory damages or more if you can justify it. It helps if you discuss damages for license violations in the contract or the license, but it's not strictly required if you can show damages some other way.

At this point, the party violating the license knows you're serious and will either ignore the lawsuit (and get a default judgement entered against themselves), settle with you out of court (likely for less than the amount of damages you're asking for, as a sort of compromise), or go to court and try to get out of it. If you and your lawyer did your jobs in steps 1 and 2, you stand a good chance of winning in court. It's not a sure thing since you may get an unsympathetic judge/jury or the party violating your license might have an ace up its sleeve.

You've won the case and were awarded the damages you asked for. At this point, most parties are just going to pay (assuming they are able to, see steps 1 and 2) and stop the violation. There's a possibility that they end up not being able to pay, or not being willing to pay, in which case collecting might be a headache, but you should probably cross that bridge only if you come to it.

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I feel like you're asking a practical question here, and not necessarily a legal one; that said, I'll try and focus on the legal aspect here.

Few things to note:

I know there are companies (Adobe, Microsoft, Autodesk) that have entire teams looking for people and companies that are using their software illegally

Really? They must not be very successful then... :P I can probably find pirated versions of their software on Google if I wanted to.

If a freelance programmer found out his client was using the software illegally (maybe they allow access to more users then they are allowed), what can they do?

If you found that a freelancer that was using your software illegally, you could sue them. I'm not to sure how that would work, but you basically have to show that their illegal use of the program has caused you damage.


Moving on to licensing, there's something crucial to note. While you may supply your software with a license, the existence of a license will make no difference to those who use your software illegally. Sadly, there's not much you can do about this.

  • No need to show damages. – gnasher729 May 23 '16 at 18:05
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Are they using your software "illegally" or are they using it "against the terms of your contract agreement?"

Two different things.

If they're using your software to try to steal money from a bank, that's "illegal." If they're using your software for 8 people/seats instead of the agreed upon and paid five seats, that's a "violation of your contract."

  • 1
    This seems like it is rather more of a comment than an answer. – phoog Jun 22 '16 at 19:19

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