EU rules that computer languages cannot be copyrighted

May 2, 2012
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(This article was first published on The Shape of Code » R, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

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 :-)

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