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EU Court Says Computer Functions Not Copyrightable

Ruling reaffirms the right to reverse engineer software and could enhance a Google appeal if Oracle prevails in its Java copyright claim.

Oracle v. Google: Tour The Evidence
Oracle v. Google: Tour The Evidence
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
As the tech industry awaits a verdict in Oracle's copyright and patent infringement lawsuit against Google, the Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled in a similar case, SAS Institute Inc. v World Programming Ltd, that "neither the functionality of a computer program nor the programming language and the format of data files used in a computer program" are expressive enough to qualify for copyright protection.

"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 court said.

EFF attorney Kurt Opsahl said in an email, "The EU decision is consistent with U.S. law on this point, since U.S. courts have rejected copyright infringement for copying an existing program's functionality, in Computer Associates v. Altai and Lotus v. Borland."

[ Oracle And The End Of Programming As We Know It. ]

Oracle's claim against Google, however, asserts a broader interpretation of what can be copyrighted. Oracle insists the structure, sequence, and organization of its Java APIs qualify for copyright protection. Google argues Oracle's claim is overreaching because it seeks to control ideas rather than a specific copyrighted expression of an idea.

Oracle's claim also covers a small amount--nine lines--of Java code found in Android (that Google has since removed), and patent infringement.

The EU decision is being hailed as a win for the software industry because it reaffirms the legality of reverse engineering--of re-implementing the functionality and data formats of another program.

Ed Black, CEO of the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a tech industry lobbying group that counts Google as a member but not Oracle, offered the EU ruling as a lesson for the U.S courts.

"This ruling should be instructive in the Java litigation in the U.S.," said Black in a statement. "Improperly extending copyright protection to building blocks of innovation could cripple domestic software development and drive innovation abroad. We hope the ECJ's correct decision will help guide U.S. courts to get this right, as now America's competitiveness is at stake."

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