Look and feel. - Lotus v. Borland

Spreadsheet War

Lotus is a software developer whose major claim to fame was the previously market dominant spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3. After years of market dominance, Lotus began losing market share to upstart Borland's Quattro Pro spreadsheet program. While Quattro Pro brought many technical and interface advantages to the market, Borland also had to make the program easily usable to the millions of people who were trained in the use of Lotus. Borland accomplished this by adding a feature that let Lotus users execute the same command sequences they were used to from Lotus within Quattro Pro. This feature has since been emulated by Microsoft Word, which includes the option for people trained in WordPerfect to use that command hierarchy within Word.

Lotus responded to this innovation with a copyright infringement action against Borland claiming a proprietary interest in the Lotus 1-2-3 command hierarchy. When the emulation feature is activated, Quattro Pro included 469 commands identical to those found in Lotus 1-2-3. Quattro Pro's developers arranged these commands in the same hierarchical fashion, using more than 50 menus and submenus, as the hierarchy found in the Lotus program.

The court reasoned that the commands, and their hierarchical ordering, constitute the electronic operation of the software program, and that constitutes a method by which the computer is operated. Since the Copyright Act excludes protection to procedures or methods of operation, the use of the software's command to operate the computer software itself is not protectable by copyright.

Legislative Intent

The court pointed out that the legislature intended excluding electronic operation from copyright protection. While revising the Copyright Act in 1976, Congress stated that:

Section 102(b) is intended, among other things, to make clear that the expression adopted by the computer programmer is the copyrightable element of a computer program, and that the actual process or methods embodied within the program are not within the scope of copyright law.”

Congress thereby limited the definition of copyright protection available to a computer program to its literary form, the actual statements and instructions of the source code, and excluded from protection the program's electronic operation.

The court's decision in the Lotus vs. Borland case reflects the legislative intent behind the Copyright Act's exclusion of protection for procedures or methods of operation in software programs. This decision highlights the importance of distinguishing between copyrightable elements of computer programs, such as the expressions and instructions in the source code, and non-copyrightable elements, such as the electronic operation or command hierarchy of the program.