European Court Reaffirms Limits On Copyright Protection For Software

BY CCIA Staff
May 2, 2012

The Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) has made an important ruling in the case SAS Institute Inc. v. World Programming Ltd. (C?406/10). The Court has ruled that computer functions, programming languages, and data file formats could not qualify for copyright protection, and that only actual software code was eligible for copyright protection.

Copyright lawyers have long known that software interface specifications – the common rules by which software programs talk to one another – cannot qualify for copyright protection.  These functional rules are not “expression” as conceived by copyright law, but rather ideas, which copyright law was never intended to express.

Today’s decision reaffirms that the ideas and in fact the language of software do not qualify for copyright — only the expressive code that constitutes a given program.  This is consistent with years of U.S. software copyright law, and the 1991 European Computer Programs Directive.

The following can be attributed to CCIA President & CEO Ed Black:

“This ruling makes sense. No one should be able to own the rules of the road. Today’s ruling is a win for open markets and open networks.  Extending the copyright holder’s monopoly beyond his own program to encompass more than what he wrote, is not in the public interest.

“This ruling should be instructive in the Java litigation in the U.S.  Improperly extending copyright protection to building blocks of innovation could cripple domestic software development and drive innovation abroad. We hope the ECJ’s correct decision will help guide U.S. courts to get this right, as now America’s competitiveness is at stake.”

The following statement may be attributed to CCIA VP for Law & Policy and Georgetown adjunct professor Matthew Schruers:

“Just as a poet will have protection for a sonnet written in iambic pentameter, but not the ‘rule’ of iambic pentameter, nor the English language, software rights-holders are entitled to protection on their code, but not a software interface, data structure, nor the general language in which the code is written.  These unprotectable rules belong to the public domain.  This balance incentivizes innovation and creativity while ensuring that no one rights-holder can monopolize the language or functions by which software is coded.”

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