It is a fundamental feature of copyright law that it protects
only original expression, not ideas. Applied to software,
the law of copyright tells us that certain elements of a computer
program are not protectable by copyright. For example, purely
functional elements such as the structure of a library, or
database, or elements dictated by the operating system, can fall
outside the scope of copyright protection, since those elements
lack the originality necessary for copyright.
In Tetris Holding LLC v. Xio Interactive, Inc.,
an app developer was found to have infringed copyright in the
famous Tetris game. The puzzle game Mino
was, by the defendant's own admission, inspired by
Tetris. However, the defendant maintained that it only
copied unprotected elements, a conclusion that the developer
reached after researching copyright law. The court did not agree.
After an exhaustive review of the idea-expression dichotomy
(40-pages worth of anaylsis, if you want to read more), the court
decided that Mino did infringe the protectable "look
and feel" of Tetris. According to this case, you
shouldn't assume that expression is unprotectible merely
because it is related to a game rule or game function.
UPDATE: In the Oracle v Google case (see our
here), the judge decided that APIs in this case were not
eligible for copyright protection. This amounts to a complete loss
for Oracle in its suit against Google for infringement of the Java
APIs used in Google's Android software. This case is expected to go up to appeal.
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