The functionality of software is not subject to copyright, the Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled.
The ruling follows a dispute between US-based analytics software vendor the SAS Institute and a UK company called World Programming. The latter developed a system that could run applications built in SAS’ proprietary programming language, Base SAS. It did so by testing a ‘Learning Edition’ version of the SAS platform.
SAS sued World Programming in 2009, claiming that it had abused the terms of its license. In 2010, the UK’s high court rejected SAS’ claim, finding that World Programming’s use of the SAS Learning Edition was within the terms of its license.
The SAS Institute appealed to the European Court of Justice. In November 2011, Advocate-General Yves Bot stated that in his opinion, "the protection of a computer program covers the literal elements of that program, that is to say, the source code and the object code, and also any other element expressing the creativity of its author".
However, "the holder of a licence to use a computer program may, without the author’s authorisation, reproduce the program code or translate the form of the code of a data format in that program so as to write, in his own computer program, a source code which reads and writes that data format", he said.
Today, the European Court of Justice upheld that view. "The functionality of a computer program and the programming language cannot be protected by copyright," it said. "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 ruling could be significant for software vendors, as it means they cannot use copyright to prevent third parties from ‘reverse engineering’ their products to create compatible but unauthorised systems.