What is an “owner” of Software?

As reported by CNET, the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal by a programmer who sued his former employer for changing his programs’ source code.

By so refusing, the US Supreme Court let stand a federal appeals court judgment (PDF) that it’s legal for people to make changes to software, provided that they own a physical copy of the program, the changes constitute “an essential step in the utilization” of the program, and the software is used “in no other manner” (a right already provided under the US Copyright Act). The significance of the decision is that the court accepted certain factors as indicating ownership for the purpose of apply Section 117(a) of the Copyright Act without there having been a formal transfer of ownership in the copy – in the absence of evidence to the contrary regarding title, paying substantial sums, to possess and use a copy indefinitely without material restriction, as well as to discard or destroy it at will, gives the possessor sufficient incidents of ownership to make it the owner of the copy for purposes of applying 117(a).