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High court won't hear programmer's appeal

He alleged copyright infringement when a former employer altered source code he had written.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by a programmer who sued his former employer for changing his programs' source code.

William Krause of New York first charged in 1996 that Titleserv, a title insurance firm, had committed copyright infringement when it altered eight programs he had written for the company over a decade of work.

Krause left the programs, which were designed to manage client information, on Titleserv's servers when he quit working for the company. He placed locks on the code and stipulated that Titleserv could run--but not alter--the programs, prompting a lawsuit from the company, which claimed it needed to make code tweaks in order to fix bugs and to perform other "routine" functions. Company employees ultimately picked the locks and made the changes they said they needed.

A federal trial court ruled in favor of Titleserv, and an appeals court upheld that judgment last year (click for PDF of opinion).

In both cases, the judges found that Titleserv was not at fault, because under U.S. copyright law, it's legal for people to make changes to software, provided that they own a physical copy of the program, the changes constitute "an essential step in the utilization" of the program, and the software is used "in no other manner."

The Supreme Court on Monday denied Krause's appeal without comment. The high court did not, however, make an anticipated announcement as to whether it will hear a patent infringement appeal in the case of eBay v. MercExchange.

The auction giant has asked the court to consider whether companies held liable in patent infringement cases should be subject to injunctions while their cases are on appeal.