Table of Contents:

Introduction to the online version


Preface to the printed version

Copyright Overview

Software Copyright

- History

- Copyrights or Patents?

- Object Code

- RAM Copies

- Beyond Mere Copying

   - Abstraction, Filtration, Comparison

   - Methods of Operation

   - Applying The AFC Test

- Reverse Engineering

- Other Issues

   - New Software from Old

- Summary

Digital Copyright

Patent Overview

Software Patents

Full treatise table of contents

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Chapter 2: Copyright of Computer Programs

II. The Scope Of Software Copyright

II.A. Copyrights or Patents?

Although it is now clear that software can be protected by copyright, the real question is what does that copyright protect? This question is complicated by the inherently-functional nature of computer software, something that has traditionally been protected by patents. Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act of 1976 restates this principle:

In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work. {FN19: 17 U.S.C. §102(b)}

This recognizes the complementary nature of copyright, which protects expression, and patents, which protect useful procedures or machines. The Supreme Court, in the 1879 case Baker v. Selden, {FN20: 101 U.S. 99 (1879)} stated:

   The difference between the two things, letters‑patent and copyright, may be illustrated by reference to the subjects just enumerated. Take the case of medicines. Certain mixtures are found to be of great value in the healing art. If the discoverer writes and publishes a book on the subject (as regular physicians generally do), he gains no exclusive right to the manufacture and sale of the medicine; he gives that to the public. If he desires to acquire such exclusive right, he must obtain a patent for the mixture as a new art, manufacture, or composition of matter. He may copyright his book, if he pleases; but that only secures to him the exclusive right of printing and publishing his book. So of all other inventions or discoveries.

   The copyright of a book on perspective, no matter how many drawings and illustrations it may contain, gives no exclusive right to the modes of drawing described, though they may never have been known or used before. By publishing the book, without getting a patent for the art, the latter is given to the public. The fact that the art described in the book by illustrations of lines and figures which are reproduced in practice in the application of the art, makes no difference. Those illustrations are the mere language employed by the author to convey his ideas more clearly. Had he used words of description instead of diagrams (which merely stand in the place of words), there could not be the slightest doubt that others, applying the art to practical use, might lawfully draw the lines and diagrams which were in the author’s mind, and which he thus described by words in his book.

   The copyright of a work on mathematical science cannot give to the author an exclusive right to the methods of operation which he propounds, or to the diagrams which he employs to explain them, so as to prevent an engineer from using them whenever occasion requires. The very object of publishing a book on science or the useful arts is to communicate to the world the useful knowledge which it contains. But this object would be frustrated if the knowledge could not be used without incurring the guilt of piracy of the book. And where the art it teaches cannot be used without employing the methods and diagrams used to illustrate the book, or such as are similar to them, such methods and diagrams are to be considered as necessary incidents to the art, and given therewith to the public; not given for the purpose of publication in other works explanatory of the art, but for the purpose of practical application. {FN21: 101 U.S. at 102-103}

Furthermore, the Court noted that the criteria for copyright and patent protection are quite different:

   A treatise on the composition and use of medicines, be they old or new; on the construction and use of ploughs, or watches, or churns; or on the mixture and application of colors for painting or dyeing; or on the mode of drawing lines to produce the effect of perspective,–‑would be the subject of copyright; but no one would contend that the copyright of the treatise would give the exclusive right to the art or manufacture described therein. The copyright of the book, if not pirated from other works, would be valid without regard to the novelty, or want of novelty, of its subject‑matter. The novelty of the art or thing described or explained has nothing to do with the validity of the copyright. To give to the author of the book an exclusive property in the art described therein, when no examination of its novelty has ever been officially made, would be a surprise and a fraud upon the public. That is the province of letters‑patent, not of copyright. The claim to an invention or discovery of an art or manufacture must be subjected to the examination of the Patent Office before an exclusive right therein can be obtained; and it can only be secured by a patent from the government. {FN22: 101 U.S. at 102}

The House Committee on the Judiciary, in its report accompanying the Copyright Act of 1976, commented on the provision in Section 102(b):

   Copyright does not preclude others from using the ideas or information revealed by the author’s work. It pertains to the literary, musical, graphic, or artistic form in which the author expressed intellectual concepts. Section 102(b) makes clear that copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.

   Some concern has been expressed lest copyright in computer programs should extend protection to the methodology or processes adopted by the programmer, rather than merely to the “writing” expressing his ideas. Section 102(b) is intended, among other things, to make clear that the expression adopted by the programmer is the copyrightable element in a computer program, and that the actual processes or methods embodied in the program are not within the scope of the copyright law. {FN23: H.R. Rep. No. 94-1476 at 56}

Next section: Object Code

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