(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)
Don’t listen to popular wisdom and urban legends: in almost all countries of the world, installing on your computer or sharing music, games, movies or software programs with others is legal only if explicitly allowed by their user license. In all other cases it is a crime that has already brought lawsuits to unaware parents.
Finding out if all the content of a computer is legal is very easy. Software, for example, is not sold nor given away, regardless of the appearances. Each software program is distributed with some conditions for using it legally, called a license. Some licenses are written to forbid modifications and redistribution of the program, in order to maximize the profits of the company which developed it. Others, like the General Public License (GPL) of the Free Software Foundation, are specifically designed to make sure that all the users of a program can study, modify or improve it and redistribute or use the improved source code without restrictions.
In other cases the software is literally given away, that is abandoned for everybody to take, and maybe resell, as he or she pleases, without any conditions. When this happens, however, it is still thanks to an explicit decision and declaration from the software author.
Incidentally, none of these licenses guarantee that there will not be loss of data due to defects in the software or that, in such cases, there will be a refund. Software is so complex and it is used in so many different ways that, in almost all cases, it wouldn’t be possible to offer such guarantees: still it is important to know that one of the most common reasons for buying proprietary software (“we know who to sue to have refunds if this doesn’t work!”) has basically no basis in reality.
An end user must simply look at the kind of license and distribution model. For example, any program developed and distributed as Free or Open Source Software is surely fine to use, copy, install, modify and redistribute under the same conditions. The important thing here is to not trust common wisdom or whoever made you use some software on this.
Many people, for example, still believe in good faith that they are safe from any legal trouble if they install without paying, “just for personal, non-profit use at home”, any software which is sold in the stores. This is almost never the case: more exactly, this is never the case unless it is explicitly written, on the CD-ROM or in the installation screen, that such an use is allowed. Another common case where people and families end up violating the law against their will, or without even realizing it, is when some software is installed on the home computer because it is the only one with which it is possible to complete some school project.
In these particular cases the assumption, or sometimes the hope, is simple: if a teacher put a student in the need to install a program on his or her personal computer, without checking if the student can afford to buy that software and actually buys it, everything is surely OK. In other words, parents (must) assume that either the teacher knows it is certainly legal for the students to not buy a software license or that, if a crime is being committed, only the teacher will be held responsible. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, if a software license normally requires the payment of a fee, it is never legal to install and use it at home unless:
there is an official student edition or similar offer at reduced price, or:
the documentation or installation procedure, again, explicitly allow personal use for study
In the second place, installing software without even pondering for a moment if it is legal to do it, not knowing in the first place that it may be illegal sometimes to do so, or lacking a real understanding of these issues are all phenomena still too common among many teachers to assume that they were able to do this kind of research for their students and actually did so. This should not be taken in any way as an insult to the millions of teachers worldwide who work hard to educate their pupils in the best possible way: it is just an acknowledgment that these problems are still so new, and the interest in the status quo so powerful, that so far there has been very little time or opportunity to inform and train teachers in the proper way.
Therefore, unless you are already absolutely sure that it is OK to install and use some software, always ask its author, distributor or the teacher who makes you install it, if it is indeed OK to install and use the software as you intend to do. The same rules apply to computer games, music, movies and so on. Remember also that, even if it is (still) very easy to foul proprietary software licenses and installation procedures, you are shooting yourself in the foot in some other way tomorrow, by giving the industry valid excuses to make computers impossible to use as it is today.