License “Legally” Defined

The following definitions for “license” are taken from Ballantine’s Law Dictionary (3rd edition), Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (6th edition), Black’s Law Dictionary (2nd edition), and Webster’s Dictionary (1828):




Unrestrained conduct. A special privilege, not a right common to all. The privilege conferred by a public body on a person for the doing of something which otherwise he would not have the right to do [33 Am J1st § 2]. Permission to exercise a right or privilege which has been subjected to regulation [Madden v. Queens Jockey Club, 296 NY 249, 72 NE2d 697, 1 ALR2d 1160]. A requirement imposed by way of regulation of an occupation or business such as the business of selling intoxicating liquors [30 Am J Rev ed Intox L § 116].

A transfer by the owner of a patent right of an interest therein less than that passing by an assignment, being the granting to the licensee of the right to make, use or vend the patented article [40 AM J1st Pat § 146]. Permission to make use of a copyrighted work exclusive of others or to use the work in a particular manner or for particular purposes [Balck v. Henry G. Allen Co. (CC NY) 42 F 618].

See certificate; implied license; irrevocable license; leave and license; parol license.





  1. A right given by some competent authority to do an act, which without such authority would be illegal. The instrument or writing which secures this right, is also called a license [Vide Ayl. Parerg, 353; 15 Vin. Ab. 92; Ang. Wat. Co. 61, 85].
  2. A license is expressed or implied. An express license is one which in direct terms authorizes the performance of a certain act; as a license to keep a tavern given by public authority.
  3. An implied license is one which though not expressly given, may be presumed from the acts of the party having a right to give it. The following are examples of such licenses:
    1. When a man knocks at another’s door, and it is opened, the act of opening the door licenses the former to enter the house for any lawful purpose [See Hob. 62]
    2. A servant is, in consequence of his employment, licensed to admit to the house, those who come on his master’s business, but only such persons [Selw. N. P. 999; Cro. Eliz. 246]. It may, however, be inferred from circumstances that the servant has authority to invite whom he pleases to the house, for lawful purposes [See 2 Greenl. Ev. 427; Entry].
  4. A license is either a bare authority, without interest, or it is coupled with an interest. A bare license must be executed by the party to whom it is given in person, and cannot be made over or assigned to him by another; and, being without consideration, may be revoked at pleasure, as long as it remains executory [39 Hen. VI M. 12, page 7]; but when carried into effect, either partially or altogether, it can only be rescinded, if in its nature it will admit of revocation, by placing the other side in the same situation in which he stood before he entered on its execution [8 East, R. 308; Palm. 71; S.C. Poph. 151; S.C. 2 Roll. Rep. 143, 152].
  5. When the license is coupled with an interest the authority conferred is not properly a mere permission, but amounts to a grant, which cannot be revoked, and it may then be assigned to a third person [5 Hen. V., M. 1, page 1; 2 Mod. 317; 7 Bing. 693; 8 East, 309; 5 B. & C. 221; 7 D. & R. 783; Crabb on R. P. 521 to 525; 14 S. & R. 267; 4 S. & R. 241; 2 Eq. Cas. Ab. 522]. When the license is coupled with an interest, the formalities essential to confer such interest should be observed [Say R. 3; 6 East, R. 602; 8 East, R. 310, note. See 14 S. & R. 267; 4 S. & R. 241; 2 Eq. Cas. Ab. 522; 11 Ad. & El. 34, 39; S. C. 39 Eng, C. L. R. 19].

International law

  1. An authority given by one of two belligerent parties, to the citizens or subjects of the other, to carry on a specified trade.
  2. The effects of the license are to suspend or relax the rules of war to the extent of the authority given. It is the assumption of a state of peace to the extent of the license. In the country which grants them, licenses to carry on a pacific commerce are strici juris, as being exceptions to the general rule; though they are not to be construed with pedantic accuracy, nor will every small deviation be held to vitiate the fair effect of them [4 Rob. Rep. 8; Chitty, Law of Nat. 1 to 5, and 260; 1 Kent, Com. 164, 85].


The name of the plea of justification to an action of trespass. A license must be specially pleaded, and cannot, like liberum tenementum, be given in evidence under the general issue [2 T.R. 166, 108].



In the law of contracts, a permission, accorded by a competent authority, conferring the right to do some act which without such authorization would be illegal, or would be a trespass or a tort [State v. Hipp, 38 Ohio St. 226; Youngblood v. Sexton, 32 Mich. 406, 20 Am. Rep. 654; Hubman v. State, 61 Ark. 482, 33 S. W. 843; Chicago v. Collins, 175 Ill. 445, 51 N. E. 907, 49 L. R. A. 408, 67 L. R. A. 224]. Also the written evidence of such permission.

In real property law, an authority to do a particular act or series of acts upon another’s land without possessing any estate therein [Clifford v. O’Neill, 12 App. Div. 17, 42 N. Y. Supp. 607; Davis v. Townsend, 10 Barb. (N.Y. 343; Morrill v. Mackman, 24 Mich. 282, 9 Am. Rep. 124; Wynn v. Garland, 19 Ark. 23, 68 Am. Dec. 190; Cheever v. Pearson, 16 Pick. (Mass.) 266]. Also the written evidence of authority so accorded.

  • It is distinguished from an “easement,” which implies an interest in the land to be affected, and a “lease,” or right to take the profits of land. It may be, however, and often, is, coupled with a grant of some interest in the land itself, or right to take the profits [1 Washb. Real. Prop. *398].

In pleading, a plea of justification to an action of trespass that the defendant was authorized by the owner of the freehold to commit the trespass complained of.

In the law of patents, a written authority granted by the owner of a patent to another person empowering the latter to make or use the patented article for a limited period or in a limited territory.

In international law, permission granted by a belligerent state to its own subjects, or to the subjects of the enemy, to carry on a trade interdicted by war [Wheat. Int. Law, 447].

  • High license: a system for the regulation and restriction of the traffic in intoxicating liquors, of which the distinguishing feature is the grant of licenses only to carefully selected persons and the charging of a license fee so great in amount as automatically to limit the number of retailers.
  • Letter of license: in English law, a written instrument in the nature of an agreement, signed by all the creditors of a failing or embarrassed debtor in trade, granting him an extension of time for the payment of the debts, allowing him in the mean time to carry on the business in the hope of recuperation, and protecting him from arrest, suit, or other interference pending the agreement. This form is not usual in America; but something similar to it is found in the “composition” or “extension agreement,” by which all the creditors agree to fund their claims in the form of promissory notes, concurrent as to date and maturity, sometimes payable serially and sometimes extending over a term of years. Provision is often made for the supervision or partial control of the business, in the mean time, by a trustee or a committee of the creditors, in which case the agreement is sometimes called a “deed of inspectorship,” though this term is more commonly used in England than in the United States.
  • License cases: the name given to the group of cases including Peirce v. New Hampshire, 5 How. 504, 12 L. Ed. 256, decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1847, to the effect that state laws requiring a license or the payment of a tax for the privilege of selling intoxicating liquors were not in conflict with the constitutional provision giving to congress the power to regulate interstate commerce, even as applied to liquors imported from another state and remaining in the original and unbroken packages. This decision was overruled in Leisy v. Hardin, 135 U.S. 100, 10 Sup. Ct. 681, 34 L. Ed. 128, which in turn was counteracted by the act of Congress of August 8, 1890, commonly called the “Wilson law.”
  • License fee or tax: the price paid to governmental or municipal authority for a license to engage in and pursue a particular calling or occupation [See Home Ins. Co. v. Augusta, 50 Ga. 537; Levi. V. Louisville, 97 Ky. 394, 30 S. W. 973, 28 L. R. A. 480].
  • License in amortization: a license authorizing a conveyance of property which, without it, would be invalid under the statutes of mortmain.
  • Marriage license: a written license or permission granted by public authority to persons who intend to intermarry, usually addressed to the minister or magistrate who is to perform the ceremony, or, in general terms, to any one authorized to solemnize marriages.
  • Registrar’s license: in English law, a license issued by an officer of that name authorizing the solemnization of a marriage, without the use of the religious ceremony ordained by the Church of England.
  • Rod license: in Canadian law, a license, granted on payment of a tax or fee, permitting the licensee to angle for fish (particularly salmon) which are otherwise protected or preserved.
  • Special license: in English law, one granted by the archbishop of Canterbury to authorize a marriage at any time or place whatever [2 Steph. Comm. 247, 255]




LI’CENSE, n. [L. licentia; from liceo, to be permitted].

  1. Leave; permission; authority or liberty given to do or forbear any act. A license may be verbal or written; when written, the paper containing the authority is called a license.
  • A man is not permitted to retail spirituous liquors till he has obtained a license.
  1. Excess of liberty; exorbitant freedom; freedom abused, or used in contempt of law or decorum.
  • License they mean, when they cry liberty.


LI’CENSE, v.t.

  1. To permit by grant of authority; to remove legal restraint by a grant of permission; as, to license a man to keep an inn.
  2. To authorize to act in a particular character; as, to license a physician or a lawyer.
  3. To dismiss [not in use].
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