Does a robot need a software license?

As always, the answer to a licensing question is: “It depends”. Various factors – which we will explain further on – determine if a software license is needed for certain products and/or cloud services and what license or subscription it should be.

Read time: 10 -12 minutes

What is a robot?
Before we can answer the question if a robot needs a software license we need to determine what a robot is. Because it is clearly not a human (user). Looking at definitions this is how Wikipedia defines a robot: ‘A robot is a virtual or mechanical artificial agent, usually an electro-mechanical machine’, and more specific for computing purposes: ‘… an automated computer program that runs tasks ….’.
The first one – a more or less person-like robot – isn’t complicating for software licensing. If it acts like a human, treat it like a human. In other words, when ‘user based software licensing’ would be used for humans, do so for these robots too (and we’ll save the legal discussion for later).
The more interesting robot is the second version, also known as a ‘bot’ or application for ‘robotic process automation’ or ‘RPA’.

Robotic Process Automation
With Robotic Process Automation (RPA), there is an application designed for repetitive tasks within an automated or computers system. Mostly these repetitive tasks replace human interactions, so the humans get less boring jobs. But what if such a process would activate -as an example – (parts of) Microsoft Office applications. What about the licensing?

Microsoft licensing definition
But first, back to definitions. The definitions related to Microsoft licensing can be found at various places. First off all in the contract you as a customer holds with Microsoft as the owner of the copyright. Secondly there are the definitions in the Use Rights or Product Terms when it comes to Microsoft Volume Licensing. We’ve looked at both places and could not find any definition about robots.
But in the April 2020 edition of the Online Services Terms we’ve spotted some definitions in the text (page 22):

“Robotic Process Automation”, otherwise know as “RPA” or “bots” means an application, or any set of applications, used to capture data and manipulate applications to perform repetitive tasks. Bots operate upon any UI element of Windows 10 within an OSE and/or operates upon any Office applications in any OSE.
“Unattended Bot”- Any bot that doesn’t strictly conform to the definition of “Attended Bot” shall be considered an “Unattended Bot”.
“Attended Bot” – An Attended Bot assists a person to execute automation on the person’s local and/or remote workstations. It operates concurrently with the person on the same workstation/’s to accomplish repetitive tasks and is triggered by explicit actions of that person.

Some abbreviation explanation:
UI is User Interface
OSE is Operating System Environment

The classic Office
Back to robots using Office Applications. When businesses use the classic Office, like Office Professional Plus 2019, there are no complications to be expected. This software is licensed on a ‘per device’ base. In other words, buy an Office Professional Plus 2019 license, assign this license to a device (computer) and install the software. All actions, human or robotic, on that licensed device which activates (parts of) Office Professional Plus 2019 are allowed.

The modern Office
Modern Office Apps are licensed with a user based subscription, also known as an User Subscription License or USL. Think about the Microsoft 365 Apps for Enterprise (formerly known as Office365 ProPlus). It is Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other Office Apps like you know it, but licenses on a per user basis. If a user (human) has a Microsoft 365 Apps for Enterprise subscription assigned, this user can use the Apps. So if the user starts the installed Word 365 as an example, this is granted.
But what if a bot uses components of Excel 365 for executing an automated process … a bot is not a user. According to the definitions, a user is a natural person (so with arms, legs and a head). Looking at it in that way, the bot using Excel 365 causes a copyright infringement.

Windows Desktop Operating System
We looked at Office, but Office Apps from an Office 365 E3 subscription are installed on Windows for the desktop. How about a Windows 10 license for the bot? It depends (off course…). If the Windows 10 license is bought as a per device license, nothing needs to be done (see paragraph about classic Office above). But if the Windows 10 installation is part of a ‘per user’ subscription, such as Windows 10 E3, there needs to be another licensing solution.

Specialty licenses
To serve the increasing amount of customers who use robots or bots for their business processes Microsoft has introduced several specialty licenses. We believe this is only the start:

  • Microsoft 365 E3 / A3 Unattended License
  • Power Automate per user with attended RPA plan
  • Power Automate unattended RPA add-on

Microsoft puts some limitations on the use rights for unattended licenses:

  • The unattended bot must be running on hardware dedicated to the customer (so no shared hardware in a datacenter from 3rd parties) or with Windows Virtual Desktop in Azure
  • Each license allows use of Microsoft 365 E3 / A3 in one physical or virtual OSE (operating system)
  • The regular license re-assignment rules apply (see Product Terms)
  • Multiplexing is not allowed, which means that unattended bots may not create or replicate activities or workflows on behalf of an unlicensed user or device

Regarding the last bullet; a computer which is used by a user ánd has an active unattended bot for some automation, requires two licenses. One is the regular USL for the user, the other is the specialty license for unattended use.

Server access
Let’s look away from the desktop and onto the IT Infrastructure. Most Microsoft server products require both a license for the server software and a license for access, the so called Client Access License. What do we need to license when an attended or an unattended bot triggers an – as an example – Excel 365 file on a network server. Well, for the Excel 365, it is the same as on a desktop computer. In other words, subscribing to a Microsoft 365 E3 Unattended license would do the trick.
But then, how about the Windows Server Client Access License and the Remote Desktop Server Client Access License (RDS CAL)? Both are available in a device license and a user license. If the organization has device licenses assigned to the computer from which the bot accesses the server, all is good. But if the organization has User CAL licenses assigned to the users of the desktop computers, ánd we have determined earlier that a robot is not a user, the action started by the bot would cause an infringement of copyright law. At the other hand, Microsoft doesn’t offer the appropriate licenses, such as a Windows Server CAL ‘Unattended’ license. Or should customer buy both the user licenses for the user of the desktop and device CAL licenses for the bot?

This is only the start
With ‘it depends’ as the answer to the initial question ‘does a robot need a license’ we are only at the start of licensing the robotic era. Because (example) do you need a device or a user license when a burglar (this is a person) triggers a CCTV camera to start a recording in an application on a Windows Server? What type of software license do you need when the autopilot in a plane or car ‘decides’ to query a database server for local maps? What licenses do you need when machine learning outcomes start a PowerBI dashboard alteration? We assume that you can think of various other scenario’s too. Not for all scenario’s a proper solution is available yet. In the end, Robotic Process Automation licensing will keep you and us busy for the upcoming years. Might you want to discuss your scenario or are you looking for a licensing solution, please do contact one of our licensing experts.

Subscribe to newsletter
U moet javascript aan hebben staan om dit formulier te kunnen versturen.