Licensing in a Nutshell

The Meaning of License

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a “license” is “The permission by competent authority to do an act which, without such permission, would be illegal, a trespass, or a tort.” Also, “Permission to do something which without the license would not be allowable.” It is that license which allows us to download an e-book onto our e-book reader, upload computer software, and legally obtain music online. In fact, with digital content, licensing has become an integral part of our access to, and use of, informational, educational, and entertainment content. And yet the meaning of a license is still not understood by all. It continues to be confused with an assignment or transfer of rights as opposed to a “mere permission” to use content under specified or agreed upon terms and conditions.

How Licensing Works

So how does licensing work in the digital world? In a nutshell, if you want to post an image on your blog, you must first obtain permission to use that image. You will likely obtain a nonexclusive license to use the image, meaning others may also simultaneously post the image on their site or otherwise use the image. You do not obtain any ownership in that image; ownership is not transferred in an exclusive or nonexclusive license. Ownership of the image or any copyright-protected work is only transferred through a written assignment of the copyright. For permission, you will likely be asked to pay a fee (sometimes called a royalty), and your use will be subject to specified terms and conditions. For example, you may have the right to post the image for 6 months. You may not be able to modify the image. These terms may be set out in a written document such as a letter of agreement or license or contract.

Each licensing situation is unique. Although model or standard licenses may seem like the answer to avoid costly and time-draining negotiations, you must always look at your own particular situation and find an arrangement that is suitable to your needs. Your best licensing arrangements will derive from an educated licensor (owner of content) and licensee (user of content) who are amicable in finding an arrangement, perhaps with some compromises, that works for both of them.

Above is an extract from the editorial from The Copyright & New Media Law Newsletter, Volume 2011, Issue 2.


  1. David Collier-Brown

    As a computer person, this strikes me as a restatement of copyright in terms of an explicit agreement, which is not always the case.

    Copyright is also a “license” if one choses to use this broad a definition, but a very common one and not one which requires a custom agreement between the holder of the copyright (who may not be the author or owner) and the person desiring to use it.

    I rather wonder what thesis the editorial writer was developing (;-))