EU court rules programming languages can't be copyrighted

A European Union court ruled yesterday that programming languages can't be copyrighted. The case was tried in the the Court of Justice of the European Union, the highest European Union court,  as SAS Institute, Inc v. World Programming Ltd.

According to the court's official judgment release, the court ruled in favor of World Programming and made the following important statement:

in accordance with [the principle that only the expression of a computer program is protected by copyright], to the extent that logic, algorithms and programming languages comprise ideas and principles, those ideas and principles are not protected under this Directive

Additionally, the court issued a press release that stated its findings in more basic terms. In regards to programming languages, the following excerpt makes a clear statement on whether or not programming languages can by copyrighted:

In this respect, the Court takes the view that, in the present case, the keywords, syntax, commands and combinations of commands, options, defaults and iterations consist of words, figures or mathematical concepts, considered in isolation, are not, as such, an intellectual creation of the author of that program. It is only through the choice, sequence and combination of those words, figures or mathematical concepts that the author expresses his creativity in an original manner.

Essentially, the court is ruling that programming languages can't be copyrighted as they are not expressing creativity in an "original manner," similar to how a mathematical concept on its own cannot be copyrighted. Original works created through the use of that programming language, however, are protected by copyright. 

The ruling is important, as ZDNet points out, in that it is similar to the current Google v. Oracle case in the United States, where Oracle is arguing Google infringed on its copyrights by using "a specific 37 Java APIs on Android without a license." While the case outlined above will have no impact on Google v. Oracle (the above case was tried in Europe, while Google v. Oracle is being tried in the United States), it could provide insight in how court systems view programming languages.

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15 Comments

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This doesn't seem to be related at all to Google v. Oracle. Syntax and mathematical expressions in and of themselves are not copyrightable but an API *has* to be copyrightable because it represents something of creativity from the author. Lots of programmers make a living off of creating APIs for other programmers to use. Hell, I've created several APIs that I could have sold but ended up giving away for free: but they are MY creative works.

An API is more related to a whole application than to mere syntax. People who don't understand that probably don't know jack **** about programming.

Ultimately, if you copy/paste a line of code you are probably not violating copyright law. If you copy/paste lines you might be. At some point you are no longer copying the color "red" from a painting and you are starting to copy parts of an image.

Edited by Shadrack, May 3 2012, 3:51pm :

Shadrack said,
This doesn't seem to be related at all to Google v. Oracle. Syntax and mathematical expressions in and of themselves are not copyrightable but an API *has* to be copyrightable because it represents something of creativity from the author. Lots of programmers make a living off of creating APIs for other programmers to use. Hell, I've created several APIs that I could have sold but ended up giving away for free: but they are MY creative works.

An API is more related to a whole application than to mere syntax. People who don't understand that probably don't know jack **** about programming.

Ultimately, if you copy/paste a line of code you are probably not violating copyright law. If you copy/paste lines you might be. At some point you are no longer copying the color "red" from a painting and you are starting to copy parts of an image.


I get what you guys are saying, but these cases are more about how courts view what materials can be copyrighted and how original they have to be. No one's arguing that you didn't come up with something on your own, the argument is just "how original is what you've come up with?" It's not the same as a painting or book, it's more akin to coming up with a math equation, as I wrote in the article.

Here's a good article that I read earlier today that discusses why APIs aren't considered copyrightable on their own (similar to programming languages):

Traditionally, application programming interfaces (APIs) have been presumed to be non-copyrightable, because unlike other elements of a software, which involve creativity, APIs are typically comprised of facts that enable one specific task: how does my software program talk to your software program and vice versa?

In the Oracle trial, Oracle is maintaining that by copying the 37 APIs collectively, it was the same as if Google would have infringed on the structure, sequence, and organization (SSO) of a computer program, which is not the same as an API. By their very combination, Oracle is arguing, the APIs become a creative, and therefore copyrightable, element of software.


http://www.itworld.com/it-mana...whats-stake-oracle-v-google

I honestly don't know the details of the API Google was using.

For what I do in my own work is typically write drivers and then programming API for hardware. For instance I might have a motor or a regulator made from a manufacturer that takes RS-232 serial commands. I then write drivers that interact with the specific piece of equipment and then I write API so that other developers can just tell the motor to turn counter-clockwise 90 degrees at a specific RPM (for instance). Others can make their own API, and certainly what my API does specifically isn't something that I feel should be copyrighted... however, in the code for my specific API i always have copyright information and licensing information at the top. This is my creative work as a programmer, and if this isn't protected then my work can be ripped off and passed on to others with me receiving any credit.

Shadrack said,
This doesn't seem to be related at all to Google v. Oracle. Syntax and mathematical expressions in and of themselves are not copyrightable but an API *has* to be copyrightable because it represents something of creativity from the author. Lots of programmers make a living off of creating APIs for other programmers to use. Hell, I've created several APIs that I could have sold but ended up giving away for free: but they are MY creative works.

An API is more related to a whole application than to mere syntax. People who don't understand that probably don't know jack **** about programming.

Ultimately, if you copy/paste a line of code you are probably not violating copyright law. If you copy/paste lines you might be. At some point you are no longer copying the color "red" from a painting and you are starting to copy parts of an image.

Absolutely. It's two very different things IMO.


The ruling is important, as ZDNet points out, in that it is similar to the current Google v. Oracle case in the United States, where Oracle is arguing Google infringed on its copyrights by using "a specific 37 Java APIs on Android without a license."

I'd disagree with that. This case was about programming languages. The Google vs Oracle case is (also) about APIs.

Based on:


Essentially, the court is ruling that programming languages can't be copyrighted as they are not expressing creativity in an "original manner," similar to how a mathematical concept on its own cannot be copyrighted. Original works created through the use of that programming language, however, are protected by copyright.

the Java APIs may be copyrightable - I even doubt they aren't...

MFH said,

I'd disagree with that. This case was about programming languages. The Google vs Oracle case is (also) about APIs.

I agree with this. The API's are an interface into the Java class library, an entity distinct from the language itself (that is, keywords, syntax, etc). The library itself is an implementation, and thus is copyrightable. The actual interface of the Java class library though shouldn't be. Oracle is trying to claim they own the copyright to the API, which is just silly because it's a standard for all Java class library implementations.

MFH said,

I'd disagree with that. This case was about programming languages. The Google vs Oracle case is (also) about APIs.

Based on:

the Java APIs may be copyrightable - I even doubt they aren't...


The case has an impact beyond just programming languages. The second block quote is a good example of what the court stated. Unless APIs are highly original works (which I believe would be the American test, "highly original") -- and I'd bet a good portion aren't -- then they wouldn't be protected. The cases are also related as the APIs in question are vital to making Java work.

So they're certainly not the same, but they are similar.

Anthony Tosie said,

Unless APIs are highly original works (which I believe would be the American test, "highly original") -- and I'd bet a good portion aren't -- then they wouldn't be protected.

That's been the case here for a long time...

MFH said,

They also changed the language (see J# and J++)...

That's what got them in trouble to begin with. "J" obviously stands for Java. Microsoft was just trying to proprietarise Java in order to kill the "Write Once Run Anywhere" OS independence threat. It's all very well documented in the link I provided.

simplezz said,
That's what got them in trouble to begin with. "J" obviously stands for Java. Microsoft was just trying to proprietarise Java in order to kill the "Write Once Run Anywhere" OS independence threat. It's all very well documented in the link I provided.

The problem isn't even the fact that they extended the API's because other Java vendors who make application servers for example do the very same thing - the issue was the fact that their version failed to conform to the Java standard and yet continued to call it 100% Java when it wasn't. To call yourself Java you have to conform to the specifications - they failed to implement the standard (the standard allows you to add more features on top of it but you need those core standardised features which is laid out by the Java standard which is controlled by the Java Community Process).

simplezz said,
It's all very well documented in the link I provided.

Oh, if its all very well documented, never mind then...

Actually there's more to it than that. Microsoft, to start off with, liked Java as a concept but felt that many Windows developers would rather use it to program Windows applications using the native API, so implemented it like that.

At the same time, Sun was forging an alliance with Netscape, Oracle, and IBM to build an "Internet OS" which they argued would topple Windows and make it obsolete. Microsoft and the so-called "Gang of Four", Sun/Netscape/Oracle, just had two competing visions of what the market would look like, and the strategy of each was a threat to the other.

Executives inside Microsoft may have used the word "extinguish" but it was only because executives inside Sun were talking about "extinguishing" Windows.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_OS