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EU rules that computer languages cannot be copyrighted

The European Court of Justice has published its decision in SAS v WPL; the title of the press release says it all “The functionality of a computer program and the programming language cannot be protected by copyright”. To summarise the background, World Programming Ltd developed a system that was capable of emulating the input/output behavior of programs written in what the SAS Institute Inc were claiming to be their copyrighted scripting language, along with various file formats.

According to the Court of Justice, “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.”

This EU ruling is not quiet what it seems. The SAS v WPL case is before the High Court in London and the EU Court of Justice has been asked for advice based on European Law. So the UK dispute has not yet been decided, but given that the UK is signed up to adhere by EU laws people who know about the legal stuff seem to think the High Court in London will follow the EU ruling. Assuming this, then…

This ruling is not just bad news for SAS, it is also bad news for their competitors. Competition is likely to lead to better/cheaper products for users of the SAS language, resulting in less incentive for them to move to an alternative (the R language included; incidentally what exactly are The R Foundation for Statistical Computing claiming copyright over in that notice that pops up when R is started?)

The Oracle vs. Google Java API lawsuit involves similar territory. There are plenty of details over at Groklaw and I’m not going to go there.

This ruling makes it much more likely that behave-alike implementations of more ‘corporate languages’ will be created, at least in Europe. Previously the threat of a lawsuit would have been enough to deter most people, irrespective of whether what they wanted to do was legal or not.

What languages might we see implemented any time soon? The one that immediately springs to mind for me is Mathematica, which is the leader in its field and a fork of Maxima that supported the Mathematica language would move it out of the ghetto. Octave and Matlab are already very close, so no change there.

I imagine there are corporate languages scattered over every conceivable application domain. A lot of these domains will be sufficiently specialized that there is a very low probability of somebody creating an open source implementation; if it looks like there is money to be made it has become more likely that an alternative commercial implementation will be created.

It looks like being a compiler writer is back as flavor of the month again :-)

  1. Markk
    May 3rd, 2012 at 01:43 | #1

    What is copyrighted is the source code to the instance of R distributed by the R institute of course.

    This is a great announcement for Europe and a great announcement for SAS competitors. SAS will not be able to step on R or other languages because they are too “close” to the SAS language. If only the judge in the Google-Oracle case who told the jury to assume programming languages could be copyrighted has a bit of this sense.

    Just think if a company could copyright a language – AT&T would suddenly be suing every single computer user in the world for license fees to use C, even though they didn’t write any of the code many people use. Given half a dozen languages you could control the usage of every programmer in the world.

    Do you really think competition will lead to better and cheaper products that SAS users will migrate to? This isn’t a change – this is keeping the status quo. Anyone at any time could, say, write a program that implemented a language that was also provided by a commercial product. They might get a great following and have many blogs about the language. They might even choose an adjacent letter in the alphabet as the name.

  2. JTT
    May 3rd, 2012 at 05:44 | #2

    Even if the programming language itself cannot be copyrighted, the intellectual creation of the computer program can still be copyrighted. In my mind this is closely related to natural languages that can’t be copyrighted either, but e.g. books, papers, and articles written in that language are copyrighted. Hence, the R copyright covers the implementation of the software and its source code, since intellectual input is needed to create those, but the copyright does not extend to the language itself under the ruling made by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

  3. May 3rd, 2012 at 11:23 | #3

    The copyright for the R source is present in the source itself, what is that copyright that appears during program execution all about? It gives the impression that there is something proprietary about the program. If all of the programs present in Linux generated a copyright when they were run there would be a great deal of confusion. Are the R people just emulating the copyrights they see from commercial vendors? I am not a legal person, perhaps a reader who is can give us a better idea about whether it is really necessary, or perhaps the R Foundation really is claiming something.

    AT&T were more than happy to let ISO have rights to C and C++ (I was told this about C from standard’s committee members and saw it myself as an early attendee of C++ standard’s meetings).

  4. May 4th, 2012 at 13:31 | #4

    Given that the R language started as a clone of the S language, it would be hypocritical in the extreme for R to object to anyone copying their language. I imagine their copyright notice is intended to protect them against someone else claiming ownership of their IP.

  5. Bruno Rodrigues
    May 4th, 2012 at 13:41 | #5


    The copyright in R, is actually stating that the R language is available under the GPL, which is actually a copyleft license, granting the right to copy, distribute, modify, and distribute modifications of the R language to anyone. All these copies and modifications must be licensed under the GPL though.

  6. May 4th, 2012 at 14:02 | #6

    @Bruno Rodrigues
    The copyright notice in the source code states that R is licensed under the GPL. Is a copyright really needed at runtime? GCC does not print out any copyright notice when it compiles a program, while other proprietary compilers do print out such a notice at the start of every compilation. I have no legal training so don’t know whether GCC is missing out on something by not printing such a notice, but I know the the Free Software Foundation do pay attention to the legal details and suspect they have looked into this situation.

    As I said in an earlier comment, the R people might just be printing a copyright because they have seem other statistical packages doing it.

  7. May 4th, 2012 at 17:06 | #7

    I believe the copyright statement is in regard to R’s source code, which is very different than the language it implements. My understanding is that a copyright is necessary in order to grant licensing terms (GNU GPLv2) for the source code.

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