The Computer Software Copyright Act of 1980

By Summer Seligmann, C2ST Intern, Loyola University

Computers are everywhere. Their technology helps people get around, order groceries, do research, and so much more. Technology is so intertwined with our lives that the average person spends more than 10 hours online everyday. The debate we see today, over how to govern this technology and how to protect the rights of people who create it, has been happening since computers first gained popularity in the 1970s. Before 1980, few laws protected the authors of computer programs and softwares, but this all changed on December 12th, 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed the Computer Software Copyright Act into law. 

The Computer Software Copyright Act of 1980 was an amendment to the existing copyright law. This amendment did two things: it added a definition for the term “computer program” and it restricted how copies of said programs could be made. A Computer program, as defined under copyright law is “a set of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in a computer in order to bring about a certain result”. Now that computer programs were defined under copyright law, creators had control over the copying, selling, and leasing of their work (under certain conditions).

Copyright laws only protect the expression of an idea, but not the idea itself. In most cases, the specific source code (the programming code written by a person), is protected, but the invention of the software program is not. We can think about this another way. Take a pie recipe, for example. The instructions to bake the pie are copyrightable, but the list of ingredients for that pie is not. If someone tries your pie, they might get inspired to make their own; they can’t publish your recipes’ instructions as their own, but they can create their own process to make the pie (and it might even taste better). Copyrights are meant to do this – to promote creativity and innovation. 

Although ideas are not copyrightable, they can be patented. Once a patent is granted, the inventor can prevent anyone from creating or selling their invention. So, if you were the first pie maker and you received a patent, no one could make your pie. In a nutshell, software patents protect the design and idea, while copyrights protect the authorship of an original work. 

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There are advantages and disadvantages to copyrights and patents, especially when it comes to computer programs. Copyright laws give authors protection over their (original) work the moment it is created in a tangible form. They also last for the lifetime of the author, plus 70 years. Patents, on the other hand, are harder to obtain because they have to be applied for. The process can be lengthy, and once a patent is granted, it only lasts 20 years. The category that computer programs and software fall under (either an invention or expression of an invention) is not exactly clear. The components that make up a computer program, like source code, can’t be patented, while the functionality of the program itself can. Legal experts have debated this because some think that the computer program is not just the expression of an idea, but is the process of the idea as well. As technology advances, it is likely that this debate will become more complex. Only time will tell if legislators can crack the code on how to govern computer software. 

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