EU Court Of Justice Upholds Limits Of Copyright On Software

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The European Court of Justice recently reaffirmed the limits of copyright protection in computer software.

The case is SAS Institute Inc. v. World Programming Ltd (C 406/10).

The case involved two competing companies, SAS Institute and World Programming, both in the business of producing statistical analysis software. World Programming created its product by reverse engineering lawfully acquired copies of SAS Institute’s program. However, there was no evidence to suggest that World Programming had access to or copied the source code of the SAS components.

The ECJ, Europe’s highest court, upheld the High Court of England and Wales’ ruling in deciding that copyright in computer programs does not protect programming languages, the functions of the programs, or interfaces from being duplicated.

In particular, the ECJ emphasised the importance of the idea-expression dichotomy, stating (para. 32): “only the expression of a computer program is protected by copyright, to the extent that logic, algorithms and programming languages comprise ideas and principles, those ideas and principles are not protected.”

The Court further held (para. 39): “neither the functionality of a computer program nor the programming language and the format of data files used in a computer program in order to exploit certain of its functions constitute a form of expression of that program.”

Computer & Communication Industry Association (CCIA) President and CEO Ed Black supported the decision’s public interest leaning, naming it “a win for open markets and open networks.” CCIA Vice President for Law & Policy Matthew Schruers added that software interface, data structure, and programming language belong to the public domain, ensuring that “no one rights-holder can monopolize the language or functions by which software is coded.”

Nancy Situ is a researcher with Intellectual Property Watch. She is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. Her interests lie within copyright and trademark policy, especially pertaining to freedom of expression and challenges in an online environment. She is currently an IPilogue editor and the Senior Editor-in-Chief of Obiter Dicta.

Nancy Situ may be reached at

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