Programming languages not copyrightable rules top EU court

The European Court of Justice has left the door open to reverse engineering of programs

Europe's top court ruled on Wednesday that the functionality of a computer program and the programming language it is written in cannot be protected by copyright.

The European Court of Justice made the decision in relation to a case brought by SAS Institute against World Programming Limited (WPL).

SAS makes data processing and statistical analysis programs. The core component of the SAS system allows users to write and run application programs written in SAS programming language. Through reference to the Learning Edition of the SAS System, which WPL acquired under a lawful license, WPL created a product that emulates much of the functionality of the SAS components, so that customers' application programs can run in the same way on WPL as on the SAS components.

The court found that although WPL used and studied SAS programs in order to understand their functioning, there was "nothing to suggest that WPL had access to or copied the source code of the SAS components." It ruled that "The purchaser of a license for a program is entitled, as a rule, to observe, study or test its functioning so as to determine the ideas and principles which underlie that program."

If it were accepted that a functionality of a computer program can be protected as such, that would amount to making it possible to monopolize ideas, to the detriment of technological progress and industrial development, decided the court, echoing the opinion given last November by the court's Advocate General, Yves Bot.

The result is that the court finds that ideas and principles which underlie any element of a computer program are not protected by copyright under that directive, only the expression of those ideas and principles.

This in effect leaves the door open for other software companies to "reverse engineer" programs in many cases without fear of infringing copyright.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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Jennifer Baker

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