An essential principle of copyright law is under threat: the principle that a copyright cannot grant a monopoly over the idea of adding up numbers, drawing a design specified by the user, or moving a robot arm using the designer's movement commands. We are all free to write our own code to achieve the same functional results; copyright only monopolizes the creative expression – if any – in the written code that implements that idea.
SAS Institute would like to change that, harming all of us who rely upon competition in the tech sector and enjoy the benefits that come with it. EFF filed an amicus brief today in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, urging the judges to protect interoperability, reverse engineering, and innovation by upholding traditional limits on the scope of copyright power.
In this case, the SAS Institute claims that copyright law grants it a monopoly over the functional input and output behavior of its software compiler. World Programming Limited is fighting back, asserting its right to make software compatible with the SAS system. WPL didn’t copy any of the code from SAS’s compiler, it simply built its own compiler so that a person accustomed to SAS input formats can achieve the same functionality with WPL’s competing product. In the past courts have told companies like SAS to go seek a patent if they want the power to control functionality, since that’s not the purview of copyright law. There is no patent claim at issue in this case.
If SAS’s view held sway at the birth of the personal computer revolution, it would have put the brakes on the development of affordable home computers, laptops, server software, and now-common cloud computing technologies. It would also be much rarer for software written for one platform, like Android or Windows, to be adapted to work on another (and Android likely wouldn’t even exist). As EFF argues in its brief, programmers must be able to freely reimplement and reverse engineer functional interfaces to create compatible software that the original creator might never have envisioned. Requiring that developers obtain a costly license before doing such work would give companies an unfair veto over any future innovation, controlling the evolution of technology and making sure that potential new competitors and noncommercial programmers are cut off.
SAS is asking the appeals court for a dangerous power—one that would misuse copyright to stymie the practices that have allowed the American computer industry to flourish, and would block new innovations in personal technology. We hope that the court rejects SAS’s arguments, and protects innovation for everyone.