Copyright doesn’t protect software functions

Friday, 2 December 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

BRUSSELS (Reuters): US computer software company SAS Institute cannot claim copyright protection for the functions performed by its programmes, which have been replicated by a rival, an adviser to Europe’s highest court said.

The case is seen as crucial for the European computer industry and could determine how companies create products that can work with rival services without breaching copyright rules.

The non-binding opinion by Yves Bot, an advocate-general at the Luxembourg-based EU Court of Justice (ECJ), is in line with a verdict reached by the High Court of England and Wales in July last year. ECJ judges will rule on the case next year.

SAS Institute took legal action against World Programming Ltd (WPL) in 2009, saying the British software company had infringed its copyrights by copying its programmes and manuals -- even though WPL had designed its products without access to SAS’s source code.

The England and Wales court disagreed with SAS Institute’s arguments, saying the underlying functions performed by software programmes such as drawing a box or moving a cursor were not subjected to copyright protection. The judge also sought advice from the ECJ.

In Bot’s opinion released on Tuesday, the advocate-general said copyright protection cannot extend to the functions performed by a computer programme or the programming language.

“If it were accepted that a functionality of a computer program can be protected as such, that would amount to making it possible to monopolise ideas, to the detriment of technological progress and industrial development,” he said.

He said companies could reproduce a rival’s source code to ensure that its programmes were compatible with competing products, as long as they comply with certain conditions.

The ECJ case is C-406/10, SAS Institute versus World Programming Ltd.