Programming languages 'do not enjoy copyright protection,' EU court says

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

Rachel King Staff Writer
Rachel King is a staff writer for ZDNet based in San Francisco.
Rachel King
3 min read

The highest court in the European Union issued a ruling yesterday 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 Google is guilty of copyright infringement for using a specific set of 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.

This story originally appeared at ZDNet's Between the Lines under the headline "E.U. court rules programming languages not copyrightable."