Does copyright protect data file formats?

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Summary: Generally speaking, copyright protects the expression of an idea but it does not protect the underlying idea itself. Applying that rationale to computer programs, copyright in computer programs typically does not extend to the functionality, operational interfaces or the programming language of the program, although it can protect the source code, object code and preparatory design materials of the program. Accordingly, developing and using a program that has the same or similar functionality and operational interfaces of another computer program would not of itself usually amount to copyright infringement, but copying the underlying source (or object) code would.

Typically our updates relate to new developments. This update is an exception and we have prepared it because it addresses a question which we are repeatedly asked by our clients.

Generally speaking, copyright protects the expression of an idea but it does not protect the underlying idea itself.  Applying that rationale to computer programs, copyright in computer programs typically does not extend to the functionality, operational interfaces or the programming language of the program, although it can protect the source code, object code and preparatory design materials of the program.  Accordingly, developing and using a program that has the same or similar functionality and operational interfaces of another computer program would not of itself usually amount to copyright infringement, but copying the underlying source (or object) code would. But what about data file formats? Can these fall under the umbrella of copyright protection?

SAS Institute Inc. v World Programming Ltd, a reference from the UK High Court to the  Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), concerned claims brought by SAS against WPL relating to its SAS System - a system for data processing and statistical analysis that enables users to write and run their own application programs in SAS language, in effect adapting the system to work with their data.  WPL created the World Programming System as an alternative to the SAS System which emulated its functionality and allowed users to continue to write and run their own application programs in SAS language and using the same or similar file formats. One important point to note about this case is that it was primarily concerned with the availability of copyright protection under a particular piece of legislation, namely the Computer Programs Directive.

The CJEU decided that the programming language and data file formats used in a program to interpret and execute application programs and to read and write data in a specific format of data files were elements that enabled users to exploit certain functions of the program. As such they were not protected by copyright under the Computer Programs Directive. The court was clearly mindful of a broader concern not to allow copyright owners to monopolise the idea and functional elements underlying a computer program, thereby stifling technological progress and competing products for the benefit of consumers, such as WPL’s World Programming System. On the face of it, that suggests the answer to the question is ‘no’.

There are, however, two further points made by the CJEU which merit attention:

  1. The CJEU pointed out that if a third party procured the part of the source or object code of the program relating to the format of data files and used it to create similar elements in its own program, copyright may subsist in that part of the code (with the implication that there is a risk of copyright infringement in that code).  In the UK High Court there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate that WPL had access to the SAS source code to decompile it.  While WPL had reproduced the functionality of SAS’s program by using the same programming language and data file formats, it had done so by observing, testing and studying the behaviour of the program and that was permissible.
  2. The CJEU noted that, quite apart from the Computer Programs Directive, it was possible that elements of a program, including data file formats might nevertheless still be protected by copyright under the Copyright Directive if the data file formats constituted the author’s “own intellectual creation”.

When the CJEU referred the SAS Institute Inc. v World Programming Ltd case back to the UK High Court (having answered the questions asked of it), the High Court noted the possibility that data file formats might be protected as the author’s own intellectual creation and that this required “something on which the author had stamped his personal touch through the creative choices he has made”.  However, it pointed out that such a claim had not been pleaded by SAS and so it remains open to argument.   The High Court noted, however, that elements of a data file format differentiated only by their technical function must be disregarded and that in any event it was not a straightforward question as to whether data file formats would amount to a “work” capable of protection under the Copyright Directive.

In the circumstances, whilst it cannot be discounted, claiming copyright protection in a data file format is unlikely to be a straightforward endeavour.

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