Copyright Does Not Protect Computer Programming Languages in Europe

In the much-watched case of SAS Institute Inc. v. World Programming Ltd., the European Court of Justice has ruled that European copyright protection does not extend to computer programs.  World Programming copied SAS' programming language without access to, and without decompiling, SAS' computer code.  According to the court, reproducing functionality was not copyright infringement so long as there was no copying.  Commentators are now proclaiming the door open to permit reverse-engineering of computer programs, although it seems that there is a difference between reverse-engineering, i.e., studying a program, to copy functionality, and decompiling code to copy it.  As explained in one good summary of the decision:

If a third party created a program after procuring source or object code similar to the programming language, that would be copyright infringement. But World did not have access to the SAS source code, and it did not carry out decompilation of the object code, according to the court.

"By means of observing, studying and testing the behavior of SAS Institute's program, WPL reproduced the functionality of that program by using the same programming language and the same format of data files," the court said.

The SAS license allows the user to observe, study or test the functioning of a computer program to determine the ideas and principles which underlie any element of the program. EU copyrights do not extend to such underlying ideas and principles, the judges found.