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To my understanding, a person must always have a license to use an app. If I get a contract to build a small, simple app, must I still explicitly give a license or is it implied when I send the deliverable and they pay me?

If I must give a license, what is the best way to do this? Does sending it in an email suffice, or must each copy display the license on a computer using it the first time?

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If you are contracted to develop an app, your contract should state who gets ownership of the result. The norm is that your client gets full rights, so if anyone wants to use this app afterwards, they´d have to license it with them. Of course you are free to make other deals like shared revenue, or you keep the rights and just grant them (one) license.

You should also look at who will give support and who will bear liability for that app, if others are to use it. So in some cases it may be better to just deliver you work and leave all rights and liabilities to the client. If you do not, make sure you have adequate insurance for the the whole product-live-cycle!

If you have no (written) contract, normally copyright kicks in and you have all the rights - though the client might argue that is not what was agreed upon and you have a verbal contract that says otherwise. So best to stay away from any ambiguity and have it written. This protects mainly the clients interest, as he will want to get the rights for what he paid for, but also spares you the potential conflict. Remember you are the one doing it professionally and as such should counsel the client in his best interest.

Edit, after comments by OP: A License is noting more than a "permit to use" i.e. a form of contract. This is kind implicit if you give somebody a copy of your software and he pays you for it. What form the license must take (implicit, verbal, electronic, written, with protection in the program) is dependent on what the parties are comfortable with. There are no rules for that.

  • I wish I had known this sooner. Especially for small projects, clients seem to get afraid of contracts, let alone ones with legal jargon. – JamesJay Sep 13 '17 at 7:31
  • Thanks for the info, though you don't actually answer the question. – JamesJay Sep 13 '17 at 7:32
  • Ok ... so what was the question? – Daniel Sep 13 '17 at 8:15
  • @JamesJay: I would not even think of delivering any piece of software without a contract. Software has such a great potential for costly errors, that I want to be absolutely clear on liabilities! Anything else strikes my as truly unprofessional. – Daniel Sep 13 '17 at 8:20
  • @JamesJay - depending on your location then agreeing a specification and delivering an app would usually create an implicit contract and licence for the software, but I'd strongly agree on getting a written contract with explicit licence terms for the software as a matter of course. – Dave Humm Sep 13 '17 at 9:22

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