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Computer Security: When "free" is not free

Protect CERN, protect yourself! Using applications without a valid licence will lead to repercussions


“Academic freedom” is one of the values held in high regard by CERN. Freedom in terms of open and unbiased research, free communication, free opinions and free discussions. In the digital world, this also includes the freedom to choose which hardware to buy, which operating system to install, which programming language to employ and which applications to use. However, there are also limits and sometimes it is better to choose a mainstream option: coordinating hardware purchases saves money; deploying centrally provided operating systems enables excellent support; aligning programing languages benefits long-term maintenance and collaboration; and refraining from “free” applications avoids licensing troubles. And we know all about licensing troubles!

Protect CERN, protect yourself! Using applications without a valid licence will lead to repercussions (see our Bulletin article on “Do you have 30 kCHF pocket money?”). Deliberately downloading pirated licences is professional misconduct, and might lead to financial penalties. But the innocent installation of “free” applications can also have unexpected consequences: “free software” or “free version” does not necessarily mean that something is free to use at CERN. For example, “free” might imply that a private individual can use the software at home without charges, or a small team of people can use it together without being billed. In the context of CERN, however, neither applies: applications are supposed to be used in a professional context and, very often – in collaborations with big teams – the term “free” is invalid. It is therefore very important to check the Terms and Conditions prior to the first use of any software and to understand under which circumstances “free” really means “free of charge”.

But the word “free” can also have another connotation: “provided for free by my home institute”. CERN’s academic freedom means that CERN is acting as an Internet Service Provider (ISP), providing network connections to the Internet for many of our users. The corresponding hardware, including laptops etc., is sponsored by their home institute and comes loaded with a stack of applications provided by the institute – not by CERN. While these institutes are expected to have purchased those applications under a valid licensing scheme, this scheme and the associated Terms and Conditions might not permit any usage of those applications abroad. Location is key and licences might be valid only when the applications are used at the home institute’s premises! Care must also be taken here. Once more, it is very important to check the Terms and Conditions prior to the first use of any software. In cases of abuse, CERN will decline any responsibility and refer the matter to the user’s home institute.

Therefore, if you need a specific application for CERN-related professional business, please first check CERN’s portfolio of centrally provided software via CMF for Windows PCs, LXSOFT for Linux systems and the CERN/Apple Mac Self-Service. Dedicated licences are also available for engineering software and for control software. If these do not suit your needs, or if you are in doubt as to whether the licence conditions of your applications are compliant with usage at CERN, please contact the CERN Software Licence Officer to check your options and, if needed, agree to make a central purchase. And for your private/personal usage, please refrain from installing such software on CERN-owned PCs and laptops and use your private, non-CERN e-mail address to register. Otherwise, any costs that arise will be billed to you.


Do you want to learn more about computer security incidents and issues at CERN? Follow our Monthly Report. For further information, questions or help, check our website or contact us at Computer.Security@cern.ch.