E.U. court rules programming languages not copyrightable

E.U. court rules programming languages not copyrightable

Summary: The European Court of Justice rules that programming languages are not copyrightable in a case that closely parallels Oracle v. Google.


The highest court in the European Union issued a ruling on Wednesday that essentially declares programming languages are not copyrightable.

The European Court of Justice ruled in favor of World Programming Limited (WPL) over the SAS Institute, which developed the SAS System, an integrated set of programs that enables users to carry out data processing and analysis tasks.

WPL emulated these functionalities with its World Programming System to ensure that its platform would work the same way, meaning the same inputs would produce the same outputs.

Here are the most important parts of the ruling, according to the court judgment:

In order to produce the WPS program, WPL lawfully acquired copies of the Learning Edition of the SAS System, which were supplied under licences limiting the rights of the licensee to non- production purposes. WPL used and studied those programs in order to understand their functioning but there is nothing to suggest that WPL had access to or copied the source code of the SAS components.


Thus, only the expression of those ideas and principles is protected by copyright. The object of the protection conferred by Directive 91/250 is the expression in any form of a computer program, such as the source code and the object code, which permits reproduction in different computer languages. On the basis of those considerations, the Court holds that neither the functionality of a computer program nor the programming language and the format of data files used in a computer program in order to exploit certain of its functions constitute a form of expression. Accordingly, they do not enjoy copyright protection.

For anyone following along to the Oracle v. Google case, the similarities are spellbinding.

In the U.S. parallel at the U.S. District Court, the jury is currently deliberating over whether or not Google is guilty of copyright infringement for using a specific 37 Java APIs on Android without a license.

Google believes that because the Java language is free to use, so should the APIs because they are necessary for making the Java language work.

On the contrary, Oracle -- the owner of the Java APIs and related patents and copyrights after its 2010 acquisition of Sun Microsystems -- argues that Google took these APIs without a license because they were the most popular and would speed up the process to debut Android back in 2007.

Nevertheless, there are some key differences here between Oracle v. Google and SAS v. WPL -- especially regarding source codes, which are at the heart of Oracle's case.

Groklaw points towards a Google+ discussion that highlights that while WPL didn't have access to SAS's source code, but the Java source code was available through Apache Harmony. Oracle has played up the latter quite a bit, although Google denies it copied the source code.

It's also worth pointing out that even if SAS v. WPL had been decided sooner, it wouldn't necessarily affect the Oracle-Google trial due to jurisdiction. The WPL case would only hold in Europe, while Oracle v. Google is being tried in an American federal court.


Topic: Software Development

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  • good reason to dismiss Oracle's lawsuit

    as frivolous. Just like World Programming Limited, google created its own clean room implementation, hence there is no copyright infringement!
    The Linux Geek
    • If Google wrote everything from scratch

      There's no issue. If they used code written by Sun/Oracle, there's an issue. They say they didn't... but then didn't they say they were not reading data from personal wifi stations?
      • The code has been examined very closely.

        I think Oracle discovered [i]9 lines[/i] that had been copied, but those lines were trivially removed ages ago. So "no", there's no copied code. The point is that Oracle is claiming copyright on the names and structures of the packages too - the Java API. It hasn't been decided yet whether this actually [i]is[/i] copyrightable, but that Judge has instructed the jury to assume that it is for now. He will rule on this after they deliver their verdict (if necessary).

        This European ruling is wonderfully timely... The perfect opportunity for other legal minds to offer an opinion.
      • Uh, no.

        GOOGLE said they accidentally obtained personal wifi stations. They said they didn't deliberately capture the PAYLOAD. NONE of the tools for packet analysis in existence at the time, and few NOW, took the additional measure of removing the packet header from the payload. The analogy would be a thief suing a store because he wasn't wearing any clothes and the camera violated his privacy rights.
  • Here is the HUGE difference with Oracle vs Google

    "... but there is nothing to suggest that WPL had access to or copied the source code ... "

    Google not only had access to the source code, they even hire Sun Java developers to do the job. Why do you think the father of Java ran out of Google as soon as he could?? It wasn't because the new job offered more money .....
    • Neither having access to source nor hiring of programmers constitute...

      copyright infringement in and of themselves.

      I've not followed the Oracle vs Google case so i can't offer an opinion, but neither of your two statements constitute copyright infringement (yet).
      Richard Flude
      • Maybe, maybe not ... but it blows away the claim of "clean room"

        Google is claiming "clean room" implementation for Android. But facts don't show that to be the truth.

        You can't have a "clean room" design when the original developers are used and source code is looked at and copied.
      • You made a jump to copied

        We have no idea which developers worked on what. We don't know what code was looked at, let alone any code copied.

        "Facts" are claimed pretty freely these days.
        Richard Flude
  • Well that's nice but um, the trial is in San Francisco

    So it doesnt matter what the EU says! Although I do agree with them.
  • This case is totally different

    Because Oracle versus Google is not about language keywords being copied. It is about code, APIs, licensing.
    • logical point

      if you agree it is a language. Then the individual words (API) and letters (code) which make it up are part of the language. therefore can not licensed.
  • About Freaking Time

    That *somebody* actually said it. Languages, (and that includes APIs, damn it), functionality, and facts can't be copyrighted.

    Software shouldn't be patented, either, but that's a whole nother can of carnivorous worms...
  • But,

    The people who made the processor that the "language" runs on did initially say that there were rules to follow. The language has to fit the processor. It's like building trains; fine, but tracks help and will carry as yet undeveloped trains. The trains, however, have to follow certain guidelines. A programming language is an after the fact development in that it's limited by what the processor can and cannot do. The real copyright may be the processor and not its "speech".
  • Finally

    A little bit of sense in a court decision about code.
  • License fine print

    [i]WPL lawfully acquired copies of the Learning Edition of the SAS System, which were supplied under licences limiting the rights of the licensee to non- production purposes.[/i]

    The license limited its use by delineating what is allowable within the fine print that most people ignore, but lawyers pour over. The key difference, especially when it comes to the lawyers and law, is that fine print.

    [i]Oracle ... argues that Google took these APIs without a license[/i]
    And there's the rub, a debatable one at that.

    These details aside, I agree with the E.U. ruling and also some others who have expressed support better than I can. I also don't like Oracle, but my opinion matters none. Both cases are fascinating and possibly very influential.
  • Wrong about the ruling

    Note that the court did not directly rule that programming languages are not copyrightable. The court stated that the programming language used to implement a program is a copyrightable expression. So it is only an indirect interpretation, that a programming language as implemented in a program (compiler, interpreter, etc.) would not be copyrightable.
  • Opinions are like that other thing everyone has...

    If we looked at integrity of a company my vote would be for Sun Micro but then that's just MY opinion which I am entitled to, as are all the other responders. That being settled, I have another opinion. Case law has created the mess we are in judicially as a country and is just a playground for the bloodsucking attorneys to scam their fortunes. This will benefit them most and cost all of us in the end from the loss of reward for creative invention which stymies progress if there is no reward for the effort. Who wins? The attorneys, ya know, the guys we call that other thing we all have! That's my opinion, and before you give me yours, just remember, I am glad we still have the freedom to let you express yours too, even if you don't agree.