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Does a robot require 
a software license?
Author: Peter van Uden

Does a robot require 
a software license?

July 3, 2020

As always, the answer to a licensing question is "It depends". Various factors determine whether a software license is required for certain products and/or cloud services and what license or subscription it should be.

What is a robot?

Before we can answer the question of whether a robot requires a software license, we need to determine what a robot is. Because it is clearly not a human (user). Looking at the definitions, Wikipedia defines a robot as follows: "A robot is a virtual or mechanical artificial agent, usually an electro-mechanical machine", and more specifically for computer purposes: " automated computer program that performs tasks...".

The first - a more or less person-like robot - is not more complicated for software licensing. If it behaves like a human being, treat it like a human being. In other words, if user-based software licensing would be used for humans, then do the same for these robots (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 robot-based process automation or RPA.

Robotic process automation

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is an application developed for repetitive tasks within an automated or computer system. Most often, these repetitive tasks replace human interaction, so that people get less boring jobs. But what if such a process - as an example - would activate (parts of) Microsoft Office applications. What about licensing?

Definition of Microsoft Licenses

But first back to the definitions. The definitions related to Microsoft licensing can be found in various places. First of all, in the contract that you as a customer have with Microsoft as the copyright holder. Second, there are the definitions in the usage rights or product terms when it comes to Microsoft volume licensing. We looked at both places and couldn't find any definition about robots.

However, in the April 2020 edition of the Online Terms and Conditions for Online Services, we discovered some definitions in the text (page 22)

Robotic process automation, also known as RPA or bots, means an application or set of applications used to collect data and manipulate applications to perform repetitive tasks. Bots operate on any Windows 10 UI element within an OSE and/or operate on all Office applications within an OSE.


  • Unattended Bot - Any bot that does not strictly meet the definition of a supervised bot is considered an unattended bot. 
  • Guided Bot - A Guided Bot assists a person to perform automation on the person's local and/or remote workstations. It works simultaneously with the person on the same workstation(s) to perform repetitive tasks and is triggered by explicit actions of that person.

Explanation of some abbreviations:
UI is user interface
OSE is operating system environment

The classic office

Back to robots that use Office applications. If companies use the classic office, such as Office Professional Plus 2019, no complications are to be expected. This software is licensed on a per device basis. In other words, buy an Office Professional Plus 2019 license, assign that license to a device (computer) and install the software. All actions, whether human or robotic, on that licensed device that activates (parts of) Office Professional Plus 2019 are permitted.

The modern office building

Modern office applications are licensed with a user-based subscription, also known as User Subscription License or USL. Consider the Microsoft 365 Apps for Enterprise (formerly known as Office365 ProPlus). These are Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other Office applications as you know them, but the licenses are user-based. If a user (human) is assigned a Microsoft 365 Apps for Enterprise subscription, that 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 to run an automated process... a bot is not a user. By definition, a user is a natural person (i.e., with arms, legs, and a head). In this sense, the bot that uses Excel 365 causes copyright infringement.

Windows desktop operating system

We looked at Office, but office applications from an Office 365 E3 subscription are installed on Windows for the desktop. How about a Windows 10 license for the bot? That depends (of course...) on it. If the Windows 10 license is purchased as a per-device license, nothing needs to be done (see section on classic Office above). But if the Windows 10 installation is part of a "per user" subscription, like Windows 10 E3, there must be another licensing solution.

Translated with (free version)


Um die wachsende Zahl von Kunden zu bedienen, die Roboter oder Bots für ihre Geschäftsprozesse einsetzen, hat Microsoft mehrere Speziallizenzen eingeführt. Wir glauben, dass dies erst der Anfang ist:

  • Microsoft 365 E3 / A3 unbeaufsichtigte Lizenz
  • Power Automate pro Benutzer mit betreutem RPA-Plan
  • Power Automate Unbeaufsichtigter RPA-Zusatz

Microsoft schränkt die Nutzungsrechte für unbeaufsichtigte Lizenzen teilweise ein:

  • Der unbeaufsichtigte Bot muss auf für den Kunden dedizierter Hardware laufen (also keine gemeinsam genutzte Hardware in einem Rechenzentrum von Drittanbietern) oder mit Windows Virtual Desktop in Azure
  • Jede Lizenz erlaubt die Verwendung von Microsoft 365 E3 / A3 in einem physischen oder virtuellen OSE (Betriebssystem)
  • Es gelten die regulären Regeln für die Neuzuweisung von Lizenzen (siehe Produktbedingungen)
  • Multiplexen ist nicht erlaubt, was bedeutet, dass unbeaufsichtigte Bots keine Aktivitäten oder Arbeitsabläufe im Namen eines nicht lizenzierten Benutzers oder Geräts erstellen oder replizieren dürfen.

Was den letzten Punkt betrifft; ein Computer, der von einem Benutzer benutzt wird und einen aktiven unbeaufsichtigten Bot für eine gewisse Automatisierung hat, benötigt zwei Lizenzen. Eine ist die reguläre USL für den Benutzer, die andere ist die Speziallizenz für die unbeaufsichtigte Nutzung.

Special Licenses 

To serve the growing number of customers who use robots or bots for their business processes, Microsoft has introduced several special licenses. We believe that this is just the beginning: 

  • Microsoft 365 E3 / A3 unattended license 
  • Power Automate per user with managed RPA plan 
  • Power Automate Unattended RPA addition 

Microsoft partially restricts the usage rights for unattended licenses: 

  • The unattended bot must run on hardware dedicated to the customer (i.e., not shared hardware in a third-party data center) or run with Windows Virtual Desktop in Azure 
  • Each license allows the use of Microsoft 365 E3 / A3 in a physical or virtual OSE (operating system) 
  • The regular rules for the reallocation of licenses apply (see product conditions
  • 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 point; a computer used by a user and having an active unattended bot for some automation requires two licenses. One is the regular USL for the user, the other is the special license for unattended use.

Server access 

Let's look away from the desktop and at the IT infrastructure. Most server products from Microsoft 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 a supervised or unattended bot triggers an - as an example - Excel 365 file on a network server. Well, for 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 what 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 assigned device licenses to the computer from which the bot accesses the server, everything is fine. But if the organization has assigned user CAL licenses to the users of the desktop computers, as we have seen earlier that a robot is not a user, the action initiated by the bot would cause a violation of copyright law. On the other hand, Microsoft does not offer the appropriate licenses, such as a Windows Server CAL 'Unattended' license. Or should the customer purchase both user licenses for the user of the desktop and device CAL licenses for the bot?

This is only the beginning 

With "it depends" as an answer to the initial question "does a robot need a license" we are only at the beginning of the licensing of the robot era. Because do you need a device or a user license when an intruder (that is a person) triggers a CCTV camera to start a recording in an application on a Windows server? What kind of software license do you need when the autopilot in an aircraft or car "decides" to query a database server for local maps? What kind of licenses do you need when the results of machine learning trigger a PowerBI dashboard change? We assume that you can also imagine various other scenarios. A suitable solution is not yet available for all scenarios. Ultimately, the licensing of robotic process automation will keep you and us busy for years to come. If you want to discuss your scenario or are looking for a licensing solution, please contact one of our licensing experts.

Your contact

Do you have questions on this topic, would you like more detailed information and are you looking for an expert to help you? 

Please contact us! We look forward to a successful cooperation with you.

Erol Anil

Managing Director
SYCOR IQ Solutions GmbH
+49 89 307 731 32

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