Functions performed by computer programmes are not entitled to copyright protection, Europe’s top court said on Wednesday, in a verdict that will allow developers greater freedom to produce competing and complementary software across a range of sectors.
The Luxembourg-based Court of Justice of the European Union was ruling on a case in which US computer software company SAS Institute accused British rival World Programming Ltd of infringing its copyrights by copying its programmes.
The court disagreed with SAS’s arguments, saying EU law provides copyright protection to the source code and object code of computer programmes but not for ideas or principles underlying the software.
“The functionality of a computer programme and the programming language cannot be protected by copyright,” the court said. “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.”
The ruling will affect companies in any industry seeking to create products that can work with rival services without breaching copyright rules, said Miranda Cole, a partner at law firm Covington & Burling in Brussels.
“The court ruling has significant implications for interoperability because it confirms that software producers can use syntax, keywords and commands used in third party software that they observe (rather than extracted from source code) to ensure that their own software is interoperable,” she said.
“Virtually everything we do these days, including design and engineering, are heavily software-based, so this ruling has ramifications across a broad swathe of the economy.”
The verdict shed more light on the scope of copyright protection, said Thomas Graf, a Brussels partner at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.
“The ruling helps to clarify where to draw the line between the public domain and copyright protection,” Graf said.
Thomas Vinje, a spokesman for information technology lobby group ECIS and also a Clifford Chance partner, said: “The Court of Justice has acted in favour of innovation, consumers and fair competition, by ensuring that copyright protection in computer programs is appropriately balanced and that competitive and interoperable computer programs can continue to be developed without threat of legal liability”.
The ruling was in line with the 2010 finding of the Court of England and Wales, which found copyright protection did not extend to programme functions, such as drawing a box or moving a cursor.
The ECJ case was C-406/10, SAS Institute vs World Programming Ltd.