UK Court Rules That Software Functionality Is Not Subject To Copyright
from the good-judgment dept
Yesterday, Mike wrote about some worrying indications that the US Appeals Court may be considering overturning a ruling that APIs aren't covered by copyright. Happily, over in Europe, there's better news. The long-running battle between SAS and World Programming Limited (WPL) over the more general issue of whether copyright covers software functionality has now been settled by the UK Court of Appeal in favor of WPL. Here's a good report on the judgment from Out-law.com:
The Court confirmed that the way computer programs operate is not copyrightable. This is because computer program functionality is not "a form of expression" and therefore does not qualify for protection it said, ruling on a dispute involving rival software developers SAS Institute (SAS) and World Programming Limited (WPL).
As that indicates, this is a strong affirmation that reverse-engineering software is legal, provided the code itself is not copied. It confirms an earlier decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union, whose opinion had been sought by the original UK judge that heard the SAS case. This multi-layered consideration of the key issues by different courts means that the question is pretty much settled across Europe.
"The ruling means that it will now be very difficult for software developers to challenge a competitor's software with identical functionality unless the underlying code for their software has been copied," intellectual property law expert Indradeep Bhattacharya of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said. "Even the general design, program interfaces and non coding structural elements of software are not protected by copyright. It is also not an infringement to take the ideas behind a computer program from its accompanying documents such as user manuals and technical specifications, though copying non technical descriptions would still be an infringement."
However, one other part of the ruling by the UK Court of Appeal may offer a way for software companies to combat reverse engineering. The licensing agreement from SAS had not made it clear that the software could only be used by one person; this allowed others to study and test SAS's software with the aim of reverse-engineering its functions. Out-law.com points out how software companies can make this harder in future:
"In order to try to limit who can access learning or development editions of software products, companies may want to think about restricting who is the 'lawful user' of their software," Bhattacharya said. "This can be done by entering into the licence with individual users rather than the company. Doing this would help restrict the ability of rivals to have dedicated teams of people observing, studying and testing your software to develop alternative programs."
This shows once again how contracts can be used to add restrictions beyond what copyright law dictates. It will be interesting to see if software companies try to adopt this approach, and what effect it has. Meanwhile, we can be grateful for the UK Court of Appeal's sensible ruling that will allow competition and innovation to flourish, and we must hope that the US Appeals Court follows suit.