In a blow to SAS’s efforts to litigate competitor and low-cost SAS clone WPS out of existence, the European Union High Court has ruled that programming languages can’t be copyrighted. SAS Institute (Cary, NC) had claimed that the WPS software — which allows users to process SAS data files and SAS “data step” scripts without SAS software — breached SAS’s copyright in its re-implementation of SAS functionality. But given that WPS did not study SAS source code, and merely reimplemented its interfaces and behaviour based on observation, the court ruled that this was not a violation. In a press release following the decision, the court stated:
… 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.
(Emphasis in press release.) SAS has issued no comment on the ruling to date.
The case has implications beyond SAS and WPS. In Europe, at least, it implies that developers of both proprietary and open-source software have the right to duplicate the functionality and exposed interfaces (in this case, the structure of SAS procedure calls) of a proprietary language provided they don’t copy the source code of the implementation itself.
The EU ruling conflicts with that of the jury in the Google v Oracle trial, where it was decided that Google’s re-implementation of Java APIs in the Android OS did infringe Oracle’s copyright. Implementing a SAS procedure and a Java API are similar programming efforts, and the EFF has argued convincingly that preventing programmers from re-implementing APIs harms innovation. Nonetheless, the US-based jury did not decide if Google’s Android implementation was a fair use infringement of copyright; if that question were to be resolved in Google’s failure the outcome would have a similar practical effect as the EU decision.