Command Line Interface Copyright Case: Not Fair Use... But Not Infringing Thanks To Scenes A Faire

from the we-didn't-put-the-accents-in-the-title,-since-they-break-some-rss-readers dept

While the Oracle/Google case tends to get most of the attention when people talk about the copyrighting of interfaces, there was another big "interfaces on trial" case that just completed between Cisco and Arista Networks. Cisco insisted that Arista was infringing on its Command Line Interface (CLI) by using some of the same commands that Cisco equipment used. Arista responded by pointing out that a command line interface is hardly unique, and Cisco itself had been pushing the command line interface as an industry standard, and also that this whole lawsuit was just silly (they didn't quite put it in those terms, but...). Like the Oracle/Google case, this one had a patent issue attached at the hip, which got tossed off early on. That matters, because it means that the inevitable appeal will go up through CAFC, the appeals court that specializes in mucking up patent law. CAFC infamously took its "mucking up patent" skills to copyright law a few years back, in the Oracle/Google case when it decided that APIs were copyright-eligible subject matter, upending years of common wisdom, legal precedent and the clear text of the Copyright Act about interfaces.

Of course, in the Oracle/Google case, after CAFC's disastrous decision, Google still came out ahead (so far) when a jury decided that its copying of the APIs was "fair use." In the Cisco/Arista case that just concluded, the jury went in a slightly different direction. It rejected the fair use argument, but still said the work wasn't infringing, because of the scènes à faire doctrine, which is one of those few copyright legal doctrines experts will throw in (along with "de minimis" when reminding people that fair use is not the only exception to copyright). The basis of scènes à faire is that it's something within the work where there are only a very small number of ways to do something, and thus, it's quite likely that multiple parties will do the same thing, meaning that any copyright will be greatly limited. Scènes à faire is French for "scenes that must be done."

In other words, the jury more or less said that using the command line interface was so basic to the operation of this kind of equipment, that it would be ridiculous to expect each vendor to come up with something different. Unfortunately, the jury didn't see the use as fair use, which Cisco has already jumped on as a sort of moral victory, but one that may come up later, if Cisco can successfully overturn the ruling on scènes à faire. Of course, if this case weren't forced to go through CAFC on appeal, it would have been nice to have been able to challenge the question of whether or not there's any copyright on Cisco's CLI at all, but thanks to CAFC's failure to comprehend that an interface is different than software, this is where we are. I fully expect that CAFC will somehow muck up this case too on appeal, but hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Filed Under: cafc, command line interface, copyright, fair use, interfaces, scenes a faire
Companies: arista networks, cisco

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  1. icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 16 Dec 2016 @ 9:27am


    This will only get worse when humanoid domestic robots finally hit the market. You'll give them English commands like "Pick up (object)", "Go (direction)", "Look down", "open (container)", "turn on (item)", "close door", etc.

    Which is when Activision sues for copying the user interface from the Zork games.

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