December 12th

[edit] Software Copyrights

Twenty-six years ago, on this day, the Computer Software Copyright Act of 1980 was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. Up until then, U.S. copyright laws had not applied specifically to computer programs. But, nonetheless, even though the drafters of the Constitution never envisioned computer programs, copyrights had already been granted to about 2000 programs between the 1964 and 1976.

Copyright gives rights to the creator of a computer program to define whether and how the software they created may be copied and used by others.Congress added two basic concepts to make copyright apply to software:

  1. The Act stated what the user's rights were to software with regards to making backups and copies.
  2. The Act defined, legally what software is: "...a set of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in a computer to bring about a desired result".

One wonders whether that second definition really covers imperative computer languages, since these kinds of languages don't define "steps" to be taken, instead letting the computer determine the process from the desired results.

Over the years since the Act was enacted, legal battles have tested whether copyright applies to a computer program's "look and feel": One of the best known is the 10-year series of courtroom battles over the copyright of the menu structure and keyboard-accelerators in the Lotus 123 spreadsheet program. Lotus initially won at trial. The Lotus cases finally went to the Supreme Court, which upheld the appellate court rulings that the look-and-feel was not copyrightable.

Finally, it is interesting to note that software is distinct from books, music, and movies because, unlike these, software is patentable. With a patent, the owner of the patent can prevent someone else from creating and selling software that implements specific ideas. The affect of software patents on creativity and progress continues to be the subject of much debate.

© 2006, Jorge Monasterio

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