Software development largely disregards national borders. Many open source projects have contributors in different countries, even different continents. But when legal disputes arise, borders suddenly matter again, since courts need to establish their jurisdiction over the parties involved.
Recently, a federal judge in Michigan decided to exercise jurisdiction over a Dutch programmer accused of misappropriating a combination of open-source and proprietary code from a local software company. The judge also denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
In most civil trials, such as personal injury claims, expert testimony is an invaluable tool used by both sides to help explain complex technical concepts to lay jurors. You would think expert testimony would be especially welcome in cases involving software copyrights, where jurors may be asked to examine and compare source code written in highly specialized programming languages. But at least one federal appeals court has maintained a ban on such testimony for nearly 40 years–and the U.
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “Copyright does not protect the mechanical or utilitarian aspects of works of craftsmanship.” Copyright therefore only applies to the artistic, rather than functional, aspects of a product’s design. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed this principle in a decision reinstating a copyright infringement lawsuit involving perhaps the most utilitarian of objects: a USB flash drive.
Direct Technologies LLC, v. Electronic Arts, Inc.
Computer code is a work of authorship subject to U.S. and international copyright laws. This is easy to forget in the open source community where software is freely licensed and re-distributed. But “license” implies the existence of a valid copyright. And software authors who fail to properly establish their copyrights will have a hard time enforcing any purported licenses in court.
Employee Assumes He Has Ownership of Code A recent decision by a federal judge in Alabama illustrates the problems that a software developer can face in enforcing copyright against their employer–or in this case, a former employer.