Just as the best stories often come from real life, I have found that many of my most interesting columns start out as an eMail from a reader with a real-life situation.

After the January issue of eSchool News hit the streets, I heard from John Matthews, the supervisor of technology for Passaic Public Schools in New Jersey, a district of about 13,000 students. Like many other educators, John has discovered that 21st-century students respond well to good computer learning programs.

John wrote, “I would like to make our software, such as math drills disguised as a game, more available to our students in their homes. This district is primarily composed of economically disadvantaged families, so many students cannot afford to buy the software. I would like to loan it out much like loaning out a book in the library. This would be software that cannot load on the hard drive—just run off the CD. When they finish, they return it for the next child. Do you see any legal problem with this?”

Maybe yes … maybe no. Probably. It depends. All those good lawyer-like answers.

It really depends on how the software license is written. John compares the software programs to library books, and the comparison is apt. In the case of library books, the school buys a copy of a book, owns that copy, and can loan it out to students. If the library has 10 copies of the book, then 10 students can simultaneously borrow the book, take it home, and read it. Software is very similar, with two major differences.

First, unlike books, software is easily copied. Second, copies of software programs are not sold to schools and libraries—they are licensed. This a big difference, but it also provides the answer to John’s question. How a software program can be used by students depends on the license.

Most software licenses are rather simple. For commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software, you usually have the right to load one copy of the program on one computer and use it for your own purposes. Often the license reads “for internal use only,” which means you can’t rent the software to others or use it to perform services for third parties.

Copies of software sold for classroom use are sometimes subject to seat licenses, which means you can have as many students use the software at the same time as the number of seat licenses you bought. Another type of multiple license is a site license, which simply allows many copies to be used at the same school or other location. In many cases, multiple seat licenses or site licenses allow you to load the software on a central server connected to a local area network (LAN), and each computer or terminal that is connected to the LAN shares the same license.

Like having extra copies of books in a library, multiple seat licenses cost more than single copies of COTS software. While discounts usually apply, the right to make copies of software programs is almost always limited by the license. In most licenses, the language specifically prohibits making copies of the software except for limited purposes, such as making a back-up copy in case the original is destroyed.

To get back to John’s question about loaning out copies to students to take home: In order to avoid software piracy, you have to get the same kind of license that libraries have when they buy software to loan out. Even if your school has the technology to copy the software onto multiple CDs for lending, you still have to make sure your license covers off-site use and use on different computers.

If you’re going to image the software onto CDs for student use, you have to have the right to make additional copies. Check with your librarian or a school lawyer familiar with specific wording in licenses, or go directly to the source—your software vendor. Tell the vendor what you have in mind, and ask what kind of license it has that will allow you to do this.

Does your software license allow you to provide copies for students to take home? Send a copy of the software license to davidsplitt@erols.com or fax it to (978) 665-2406. eSchool News Ethics and Law columnist David Splitt will select and review the best examples of various types of licenses that allow or prohibit “take-home” copies for student use.