Software and the law
Software and the law

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Software and the law

Copyright in the courts

Read Case study 3.

Case study 3: Copyright in the courts

Between 1970 and the present, court cases have set a variety of precedents. The following four examples, adapted from David Bainbridge’s Software Copyright Law (Bainbridge, 2004), illustrate some of the judgements given.

  1. Digital Communications Associates v Softklone Distributing Corporation. [659 F Supp 449 (ND Ga 1987)]

    The plaintiff (DCA) designed a screen display for a communications program which showed a list of commands with the first two letters highlighted and in block capitals; the user selected a command by entering its first two letters. The defendant (SDC) developed another communications program with a similar display. The court upheld protection of the screen display, saying that the idea was the concept of such a screen (and therefore not copyrightable), and the expression (that is, the use of highlighting and capital letters, and the organisation of the command) was the means to communicate the idea (and hence was protected by copyright).

  2. Broderbund Software v Unison World. [648 F Supp 1127 (ND Cal 1986)]

    This case also concerned screen displays. In this instance, it was argued by the defendant (UW) that there was only one way to structure the screens and input, thus they were part of the idea, and not simply expression. In fact, other versions of the screens were produced as evidence, and it was ruled that the screen displays were indeed part of the expression used by BS, and thus copyrightable.

  3. Ibcos Computers Ltd v Barclays Mercantile Highland Finance Ltd (UK). [1994. FSR 275]

    A programmer had worked on an accounts package for the plaintiff (Ibcos), and subsequently marketed a competing accounts package for the defendant (BM). Copyright was held to subsist in the individual program and in the entire software package as a compilation. This case showed that, as well as individual computer programs being protected by copyright, the way they are linked together (structured) may, in some cases, also be protected. In other words, depending on the skill and judgement involved in selecting and arranging the individual programs, copying structural and design features may infringe copyright.

  4. Lotus Development Corporation v Paperback Software International. [740 F Supp 37 (D Mass 1990)]

    This case showed that overall organisation and structure, the content and structure of commands, and the user interface (choice of words or symbols) are protected by copyright, but the judge in this case said that it does not follow automatically that every expression of an idea is protected by copyright. He listed four things that must be considered:

    • originality – the expression must originate from the author
    • functionality – if the expression simply embodies functional elements of an idea, it is not copyrightable
    • obviousness – if the expression is inseparable from the idea, it is not protected
    • merger – if the particular expression is one of a quite limited number of expressions, then it is not copyrightable.

(adapted from Bainbridge, 1994, pp. 50, 58–9, 92–3, 96–7)

There are a number of quite distinct rights, and in the following subsections you’ll look at each kind of right in turn, focusing on some of the specific problems and issues raised by each right. Because this is an evolving area, particularly with regard to digitised material, it is always advisable to seek expert legal advice when considering intellectual property rights in general and copyright in particular.

M814_1

Take your learning further371

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses372.

If you are new to university level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. Find out Where to take your learning next?373 You could either choose to start with an Access courses374or an open box module, which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification.

Not ready for University study then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn375 and sign up to our newsletter376 to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371