European Court of Justice: a computer program's functionality is not subject to copyright

On May 2, 2012, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) restated the mode of application of copyright to computer programs, in a very clear SAS vs WPL case. It repeated that a particular claimant cannot prevent other companies from offering other programs with similar features and that everyone can observe, study, test the operation of a program for which one has lawfully acquired the license.

This judgment was issued as part of a preliminary ruling 1 which focused especially on the applicability of copyright to the functionality of computer programs and the right of the lawful purchaser of a license to observe, study, test the operation of the computer program 2. The ECJ explains that copyright applies to expressions of the computer program, not to a feature nor to a programming language or to a file format of data to operate certain functions. In other words, the Court stated that ideas are free to roam, and we cannot claim to enforce any copyright on an idea: it is only its expression which is protected. The Court also stresses that any other law enforcement would amount to granting a monopoly on ideas, which, in the words of the ECJ, "would mean the opportunity to monopolize ideas at the expense of technical progress and industrial development ".

On the second question, i.e. the right of any license purchaser to observe, study, test the operation of the computer program, the ECJ stressed that the European law prohibits license agreements that lead to the monopolization of ideas and of principles underlying a computer program. It concludes therefore that by acquiring licenses, WPL could observe, study, test operation, irrespective of SAS's consent. By this judgment, the ECJ reminds the opportunity to study a program that is lawfully purchased, including without the author's authorization.

Though the Court does not comment on the matters of decompilation and of reverse-engineering (which were not applicable to this case), its decision has still put a stop to the attempts to extend the scope of copyright to obtain a monopoly on ideas. The Court stressed the importance of the right to study, which is also one of the freedoms of Free Software, and reminds all that this possibility is granted for all software.

"If these principles are not new, this judgment is still particularly important today, as we see attempts to monopolize ideas through software patents," says Lionel Allorge, president of April. "While the current draft unitary patent attempts to bypass the ECJ, this ruling reminds all that an independent jurisdiction is essential to ensure the balance of rights."

  • 1. A preliminary ruling means that the British High Court had asked the European Court of Justice to clarify points of law before taking its decision on the case.
  • 2. The case concerned the request of a company, SAS in this case, to prohibit another company to market a software offering similar features. Here, WPL proposed an alternative software to run application programs written in SAS, and offers a system that emulates much of the functionality of SAS components.