Programmers Can’t Copyright Code, EU Says

     (CN) – In an interesting parallel to the Oracle-Google copyright trial going on in the U.S., the European high court ruled Wednesday that copyright does not protect the functionality and programming language of computer programs.
     SAS Institute sued World Programming in Great Britain, alleging that World copied SAS system manuals and components, infringing its copyright and the terms of World’s license for the software.
     SAS had developed a data processing and analysis program that allowed users to write and execute application programs for data processing. World’s system made it possible for users to run scripts developed for the SAS system.
     World produced its software with copies of the SAS system, but its licenses limited use of the program to nonproduction purposes.
     Though World studied the SAS system, there was nothing to suggest the company had access to or copied the source code of the SAS components.
     The High Court of Justice of England and Wales ultimately referred the case to the Court of Justice for the European Union, questioning whether copyright protection extends to programming functionality and language.
     About six months ago, an adviser to the court said copyright extends to expression but does not cover ideas and principles. The Luxembourg court adopted that decision Wednesday, finding that protections cover a computer program as a whole work, but not the underlying functionality and ideas behind it – including the programming language used to create it.
     “To accept that the functionality of a computer program can be protected by copyright would amount to making it possible to monopolize ideas, to the detriment of technological progress and industrial development,” the judges wrote.
     EU law states that “the main advantage of protecting computer programs by copyright is that such protection covers only the individual expression of the work and thus leaves other authors the desired latitude to create similar or even identical programs provided that they refrain from copying,” the court said.
     If a third party created a program after procuring source or object code similar to the programming language, that would be copyright infringement. But World did not have access to the SAS source code, and it did not carry out decompilation of the object code, according to the court.
     “By means of observing, studying and testing the behavior of SAS Institute’s program, WPL reproduced the functionality of that program by using the same programming language and the same format of data files,” the court said.
     The SAS license allows the user to observe, study or test the functioning of a computer program to determine the ideas and principles which underlie any element of the program. EU copyrights do not extend to such underlying ideas and principles, the judges found.
     Furthermore, a licensing agreement cannot prohibit the licensee from studying the program and its underlying ideas and principles, according to the court.
     As to the claim that World copied the SAS user manual, the EU court said that it is up to the U.K. court to determine whether that action constitutes infringement. The judges did advise, however, that syntax, keywords, commands and other programming concepts are not copyrightable.
     “It is only through the choice, sequence and combination of those words, figures or mathematical concepts that the author may express his creativity in an original manner and achieve a result, namely the user manual for the computer program, which is an intellectual creation,” the court concluded.
     The EU court returned the case to the UK high court for final decision.

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