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EU court adviser: copyright doesn't protect software functions

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. computer software company SAS Institute cannot claim copyright protection for the functions performed by its programs, which have been replicated by a rival, an adviser to Europe's highest court said.

The case is seen as crucial for the European computer industry and could determine how companies create products that can work with rival services without breaching copyright rules.

The non-binding opinion by Yves Bot, an advocate-general at the Luxembourg-based EU Court of Justice (ECJ), is in line with a verdict reached by the High Court of England and Wales in July last year. ECJ judges will rule on the case next year.

SAS Institute took legal action against World Programing Ltd (WPL) in 2009, saying the British software company had infringed its copyrights by copying its programs and manuals -- even though WPL had designed its products without access to SAS's source code.

The England and Wales court disagreed with SAS Institute's arguments, saying the underlying functions performed by software programs such as drawing a box or moving a cursor were not subjected to copyright protection. The judge also sought advice from the ECJ.

In Bot's opinion released on Tuesday, the advocate-general said copyright protection cannot extend to the functions performed by a computer program or the programing language.

"If it were accepted that a functionality of a computer program can be protected as such, that would amount to making it possible to monopolize ideas, to the detriment of technological progress and industrial development," he said.

He said companies could reproduce a rival's source code to ensure that its programs were compatible with competing products, as long as they comply with certain conditions.

The ECJ case is C-406/10, SAS Institute versus World Programing Ltd.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Erica Billingham)

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