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Software functionality not subject to copyright: EU court

WPL-vs-SAS case gets Court of Justice opinion

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In a far-reaching decision for the software industry, the European Court of Justice has decided that the functionality of software – as distinct from the actual code – is not covered by copyright.

The decision concludes a long-running court case first brought by SAS against World Programming Limited (WPL).

WPL had gotten under SAS’s skin by buying a copy of its software and creating a feature by reading the description of the feature in the manual, and writing its own code.

SAS had attempted, in English courts, to get a finding that WPL had violated its copyright. In 2010, that led to a British High Court decision that copying the manuals violated copyright, and that WPL had violated its license agreement – but decided to refer the matter to the European Court to settle the copyright questions in light of EU intellectual property directives.

The court has decided that functionality, absent any viewing or copying of code, cannot be protected by copyright: “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 judgment states.

The court has also placed limits on the ways in which vendors can constrain customers under licensing agreements:

“[T]he owner of the copyright in a computer program may not prevent, by relying on the licensing agreement, the person who has obtained that licence from determining the ideas and principles which underlie all the elements of that program,” the court says (limited not by the EULA but by copyright law). ®

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