EU Court rules on scope of copyright protection for computer programs

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The Court of Justice of the European Union has today provided answers to a number of questions referred to it by the UK High Court concerning the scope of copyright protection available for computer programs.  These answers are likely to be greeted with a collective sigh of relief by many in the software industry as they confirm that neither the underlying functionality of a computer program, the programming language it is written in, nor the format of data files used in it are protected by copyright.

The case, SAS Institute Inc. v World Programming Ltd, concerns claims brought by SAS against WPL relating to its SAS System. This is 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. 

While it is well established that both the written source and object code for a computer program may be protected by copyright, WPL did not have access to SAS’s source code and so could not have copied it. 

At the other end of the spectrum, ideas, procedures, methods of operation and mathematical concepts as such are not protected by copyright.  Other parties remain free to write their own source and object code based on the same underlying ideas, procedures etc. (which in the case of computer programs may include logic, algorithms and programming languages).  Of course, if copyright protected these elements as such, it would enable the copyright owner to monopolise the idea/functionality underlying the program, thereby stifling technological progress and killing off competition for similar software programs. 

Some of SAS’s claims against WPL sit nearer to the ‘idea’ end of the spectrum. It is now down to the High Court to apply the guidance given by the Court of Justice.

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