EU Court Of Justice Says Software Functionality Is Not Subject To Copyright

from the good-ruling dept

We’ve been following the legal fight between SAS and World Programming Limited (WPL) for quite some time. If you don’t recall, WPL essentially recreated some functionality of SAS’s offering, not by copying the software itself or the source code, but basically by reading SAS’s manuals about what its software did. The UK’s High Court said this did not infringe, and the case got kicked up to the European Court of Justice (which has been pretty good on copyright issues lately). In the fall, the EU Advocates General recommended that the court make clear that software functionality is not subject to copyright, and it appears that’s exactly what the court has now done.

In a relatively short ruling, the court points out that, while software itself may be covered by copyright, “the ideas and principles which underlie any element of a computer program, including those which underlie its interfaces, are not protected by copyright.” Basically, the EUCJ properly recognized the difference between protecting the idea (not copyrightable) and the expression (copyrightable). The court points out that actual code can still be covered, but the features generated out of that code is a different story:

As the Advocate General states in point 57 of his Opinion, to accept that the functionality of a computer program can be protected by copyright would amount to making it possible to monopolise ideas, to the detriment of technological progress and industrial development.

Also important in the discussion is whether or not the software maker could use a license agreement to effectively prohibit this. This is a question that courts have been dealing with for a while: can you effectively remove exceptions to copyright — or can you effectively expand the power of copyright — via an overly inclusive license agreement. Here, thankfully, the court rejects that idea:

Consequently, the owner of the copyright in a computer program may not prevent, by relying on the licensing agreement, the person who has obtained that licence from determining the ideas and principles which underlie all the elements of that program in the case where that person carries out acts which that licence permits him to perform and the acts of loading and running necessary for the use of the computer program, and on condition that that person does not infringe the exclusive rights of the owner in that program.


It must therefore be held that the copyright in a computer program cannot be infringed where, as in the present case, the lawful acquirer of the licence did not have access to the source code of the computer program to which that licence relates, but merely studied, observed and tested that program in order to reproduce its functionality in a second program.

It’s always nice to see courts getting copyright rulings right (or, at least, mostly right). It’s been much rarer in the US, but it seems like the EUCJ has really been thinking a lot more carefully about copyright law lately.

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Companies: sas, world programming limited

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Comments on “EU Court Of Justice Says Software Functionality Is Not Subject To Copyright”

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jilocasin (profile) says:

Tell that to Google.....

Yes, software patents are an oxymoron (and the court that allowed them is run by… well you get the idea).

But someone should really tell Oracle that copyright doesn’t cover API/SSO/ideas behind the code.

As for the lawyers, as Upton Sinclair has been quoted as saying;

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Anonymous Coward says:

‘It seems Captain obvious is now in full residence at the EUCJ’

if he is, he’s got a hell of a lot more work to do before there is more than a shred of common sense used over copyright.
as for the EUCJ, they need to step up to the plate and make sensible decisions that are then enforced in all EU countries. what is the point, as it is at the moment, in saying ‘website blocking is not the EU option’ and ‘cutting internet access is not acceptable in the EU’, then letting member countries (UK, France, Sweden etc) do exactly the opposite? having rules that are not followed or enforced is worse than having no rules in the first place!

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