European software developers may be smirking today. The Court of Justice of the European Union ruled yesterday that functions performed by computer programs are not entitled to copyright protection.

The case, SAS Institute Inc. v. World Programming Ltd., centered on U.S. software company SAS Institute, which had developed an integrated set of programs that enabled users to carry out data processing and analysis tasks. SAS claimed that rival British company World Programming (WPL) infringed its copyrights. SAS said WPL saw a market demand for alternative software capable of executing application programs written in SAS’s language, and produced its own World Programming System (WPS).

WPS emulates the functionality of SAS’s components with few minor exceptions. Additionally, WPL tried to ensure that the same inputs would produce the same outputs, which would enable SAS system users to run scripts that they developed for use with the SAS system on WPS.  

The court, however, wasn’t buying SAS’s argument that WPL copied its manuals and components, and ruled that EU law issues copyright protection to the source code and object code of computer programs, but not for the ideas or principles beneath the software.

“The functionality of a computer programme and the programming language cannot be protected by copyright,” the court wrote. “To accept that the functionality of a computer program can be protected by copyright would amount to making it possible to monopolise ideas, to the detriment of technological progress and industrial development.”

The EU court’s ruling is expected to allow software developers greater leeway to produce competing and complementary software programs. It also will affect companies in any industry that want to create products intended to work in concert with rival services without violating copyright rules.

For greater analysis on the EU court’s ruling, read Reuters.

To read a press release from the EU court on the matter, click here.

And to learn more about the EU’s update on data protection rules, click here.