Functionality Not Protected in Computer Programs

April 23, 2012

Functionality Not Protected in Computer Programs

Computer programs have been at the centre of many legal disputes. Although the program itself is subject to the laws of copyright, creating a program that does what another program does is not a breach of copyright.

The reason for this is that copyright law does not protect ideas, but the expression of ideas in a transmittable form. In the case of a computer program, the code itself is copyright, but the ‘idea behind it’ is not.

A user manual for a program is also copyright.

Recently, a case came to court which tested the limits of this approach. It concerned a company that had created a computer program in a different programming language that emulated the look and feel of another program as well as its functionality.

The High Court referred aspects of the dispute to the Court of Justice of the European Union, which confirmed that no infringement of the intellectual property of the creator of the first program had occurred.

The practical lesson to be learned is that it is difficult or well nigh impossible to protect the functional aspects of a computer program, so if another company is intent on targeting the market with the same sort of product, a commercial arrangement with the competitor may be a better solution than fighting a case based on copyright infringement and losing. A licensing agreement would provide you with an income stream and would allow the competitor to avoid the large up-front cost of developing and testing its own software.