Image of Navigational Map linked to Home / Contents / Search Copyright 101

by Lance Miller - Author
Image of Line Break

Editor's Note : Lance is the author of the recently-released "How to make a Million dollars from Software patent and Copyright", available from GUI Computing.

The first thing to understand about copyright in computer software is that it is free! No formal registration process is required. Computer software receives the same protection as a literary work and like literary works it lasts for 50 years plus the life of the author in the case of production by a natural person. Such a long period of time has caused concern for some commentators who are worried that giving protection to a program for 50 years plus seems unduly restrictive. Especially, if one considers that most pieces of software usually have a shelf life of around 3 years unless updated.

Some people may ask why then is it that they see the symbol appearing on software, if no registration is required. The answer to that is that the symbol is a left over from the old American days of the Universal Copyright Convention under which registration was compulsory for authors to gain protection.

There has also been some interest in the degree of protection that would be received for software now that we have moved into the days of fourth generation programming languages. Essentially, I feel that the answer to this problem lies in considering the degree of creative input by the programmer into the finished product. Originality, is something that must be possessed to some extent for copyright to be granted. However, the same degree of originality or novelty as is required for the grant of a patent is certainly not required for copyright protection.

Above I have mentioned the terms "literary work" on many occasions. This is indeed quite interesting for a computer program does in fact receive the same protection as a book. Although as a matter of fact it is a lot easier to copy a program than it is to copy a large book. The case of copying of computer code has given rise to a number of interesting cases in recent times. One of which involved the copying of programs into RAM for maintenance purposes (the program being used to ensure the integrity of the operating system). In one particular case it was decided by the court that even copying the program into RAM constituted a breach of copyright if the person using the maintenance program did not have a license to operate the program.

I have spoken about the illegal copying of code. What I must say is that even though such practices are quite deplorable, I would caution anyone against making infringement allegations unless you can prove what you are saying. There are strong penalties for persons alleging infringement, if they cannot substantiate their allegations. In addition to taking great care in not making wrongful allegations I must emphasize the need for any software producer to run a clean ship. There are a number of business software organizations whose role is to combat software piracy. These groups are well funded and extremely effective in prosecuting software pirates. Accordingly, I urge any software manufacturer not to tolerate any form of improper activities, such as piracy or hacking by your employees.

As I have mentioned computer patents before, it is important to point out a few differences between patents and copyright. Copyright protects the script of a text, that is the expression, it does not protect methods of operation, and ideas or processes as patents do either directly or indirectly. Further, to this effect the limits of copyright protection can be reduced even more when one realizes that the goals of complete protection of graphic user interfaces have for the software industry been something like the search for the Holy Grail. The software industry's search for uniformity and ease of operation has also meant that industry standards are also a barrier against absolute GUI protection.

Written by: Lance Miller
June '98

Image of Arrow linked to Previous Article
Image of Line Break