Programming language can't be copyrighted: EU court

A computer programming language cannot be protected by copyright, the adviser to the EU's top court says
The EU's advocate general Yves Bot says programming languages -- different digital vocabularies such as HTML and Java used to make a computer perform certain tasks -- should be compared to the language used by a novelist.

A computer programming language cannot be protected by copyright, the adviser to the EU's top court said on Tuesday in an opinion that could affect the competitive IT industry.

Advocate general Yves Bot argued that programming languages -- different digital vocabularies such as HTML and Java used to make a computer perform certain tasks -- should be compared to the language used by a novelist.

The functionalities of a computer programme should also not be eligible for , Bot said, adding that they are the equivalent of ideas and that protecting them would "amount to making it possible to monopolise ideas."

The advocate general's opinions are not binding but the Luxembourg-based European Union of Justice follows his advice in 80 percent of cases.

The opinion arises from a case pitting North Carolina-based SAS Institute, which provides business analytics software and services, against British software firm World Programming Ltd.

SAS launched a complaint in Britain against WPL after the US company created a product that can execute programmes written in SAS language.

The High Court of Justice in Britain asked the EU judges to issue a preliminary ruling to clarify the scope of EU legal protection for computer programmes.

"The functionalities of a computer program and the cannot be protected by copyright," Bot said.

Bot said however that copyright can cover "the means for achieving the concrete expression" of the functionalities.

"The way in which formulae and algorithms are arranged -- like the style in which the is written -- will be likely to reflect the authors own intellectual creation and therefore be eligible for protection," he said.

But the holder of a programme license can reproduce or translate a source code without the author's authorisation, under certain conditions, so as to ensure different elements of a programme work together, Bot said.


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Citation: Programming language can't be copyrighted: EU court (2011, November 29) retrieved 25 April 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2011-11-language-copyrighted-eu-court.html
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Nov 29, 2011
Can someone translate this into English?

Nov 29, 2011
@siqfpe I think they mean that a programming language can not be copyrighted, however the way that you arrange different parts of the code itself is enough to be used as evidence for protection of your software since, somewhat like a fingerprint.

if anybody can correct me please do, I want to get this straight as well :)

Nov 29, 2011
I don't get it, you can copyright a file format... why not a programming language? What about a scripting language? There is very little difference between a file format and a scripting language...

Nov 29, 2011
Copyright law is a clusterfuck any way you look at it though, mostly based on whim or individual opinion.

Nov 29, 2011
Are you sure that file formats can be copyrighted? To use an example I found: "your secret barbecue sauce, or its recipe, can win a blue ribbon at the county fair but not the jar you put the sauce in, or the paper you wrote the recipe on".

Nov 29, 2011
Are you sure that file formats can be copyrighted? To use an example I found: "your secret barbecue sauce, or its recipe, can win a blue ribbon at the county fair but not the jar you put the sauce in, or the paper you wrote the recipe on".


Hmm... perhaps not... though I do know that to get information about certain file formats you have to pay the owner, such as Telcordia's SR4731 which I am dealing with right now at work.

Though, in your analogy, I think the file format details are closer to the award winning sauce than the jar...

Nov 29, 2011
Copyright law is a clusterfuck any way you look at it though, mostly based on whim or individual opinion.


Like your worldview juxtaposed against your opinions on software piracy?

Taxes are theft but piracy isn't? Get a dictionary.

Nov 29, 2011
Copyright law is a clusterfuck any way you look at it though, mostly based on whim or individual opinion.


Like your worldview juxtaposed against your opinions on software piracy?

Taxes are theft but piracy isn't? Get a dictionary.


I have no idea what you are talking about. I never said taxes are theft and I never said that all forms of piracy are not.

Nov 29, 2011
Perhaps not copyright - but wasn't the .GIF format patent protected? I seem to recall there being some controversy involving CompuServe, back in the late 90s. I can't remember the details...

Nov 29, 2011
Copyright law is a clusterfuck any way you look at it though, mostly based on whim or individual opinion.
It's difficult to say, because every product of human activity which requires some time for its construction deserves the legal protection against its usage with another people without expressed permission of author. If you wouldn't protect it, then the people will lose motivation to develop such products in their spare time at the professional level of quality. It means, the ignorance of human time and effort will always lead to the collectivist socialistic approach and gradual decline of quality and value in general.

IMO problem is rather in definition of patent protection, rather in specification of its subject. For example, the income of patent office or lawyers shouldn't be dependent on the number of patent applications issued or judged.

Nov 29, 2011
The patent trolls are another problem. For example, if you get some software patent, you shouldn't apply it, until you're not using it too. If you allow it, then the incentive character of patent application changes into prohibitive.

For example the emissions trading virtualizes the main purpose of carbon tax, i.e. the providing economic incentives for achieving reductions in the emissions of pollutants, the collection of money into introduction of green-house gases free technologies in particular.

Instead of it, the rich companies of western word are sponsoring the introduction of older fossil carbon technologies at the less developed countries and nothing forces them to limit their own production of green-house gases.

The patent trading, i.e. the transfer of patent rights to another subjects has the same effect - it negates the whole meaning of patents. The patents are supposed to protect the authors of new ideas, not their dealers.

Nov 30, 2011
This is kind of terrible, programming languages are themselves programs. People have to write them. The people writing them have to get paid somehow.

Nov 30, 2011
This is kind of terrible, programming languages are themselves programs. People have to write them. The people writing them have to get paid somehow.


A programming language itself is just syntax. It's a book of rules, not a program. You can't "run" a programming language any more than you can "run" a dictionary and a grammar book.

The program is the interpreter or compiler that turns it into machine code. An implementation of a programming language is protected by copyright, just like the grammar book or a dictionary is, but if someone makes a different implementation based on the same idea, that can't be, because it would be monopolizing ideas.

It would be like saying nobody else can use the "PRINT" command in their programming language because Microsoft has a copyright on BASIC.

Nov 30, 2011
It would be like saying nobody else can use the "PRINT" command in their programming language because Microsoft has a copyright on BASIC.
AndIf() function is patentented by Microsoft already, if I remember well..

Dec 02, 2011
"Perhaps not copyright - but wasn't the .GIF format patent protected? I seem to recall there being some controversy involving CompuServe, back in the late 90s. I can't remember the details..."

The .GIF format was not protected by copyright. It was protected by a patent on the compression algorithm used within the format.


Dec 02, 2011
"This is kind of terrible, programming languages are themselves programs. People have to write them. The people writing them have to get paid somehow."

This ruling denies copyright protection for the syntax (and other rules, such as scoping, data type interpretations, and so on, I presume).

However, it preserves copyright protection for *implementations* of a given language. For example the Microsoft C compiler may be protected by a copyright, the Sun C compiler may be protected by a copyright, ..., but the language itself cannot be copyrighted.

Also keep in mind that you can protect a piece of software using patents, copyrights, or trade-secrets.

Of course, IANAL.

Dec 03, 2011
All computer languages eventually are compiled down to machine code specific to the target architecture. On that level, it sort of makes sense. Though if the architecture is proprietary and so is the language then copyrighting it might hold *some* merit.

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