One of the most closely watched and potentially most important software copyright cases of the last 15 years has ended in a deadlock before the United States Supreme Court. On January 16, 1995, only 10 days after hearing oral argument in the case, the Court announced that it was at a 4-4 impasse in trying to decide Lotus Development Corp.’s appeal of the First Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Lotus Development Corp. v. Borland Int’l. Justice Stevens — who is believed to own stock in IBM, Lotus’s parent company — did not participate in the case.
The consequence of the Supreme Court’s inability to resolve the case on appeal was, in effect, to affirm the First Circuit’s decision, holding that a system of menus through which users interface with a software program is entitled to no protection under U.S. copyright law. As a result Borland — which had been found liable by the trial court and which was facing a damages trial in which Lotus was seeking over $100 million when the First Circuit reversed the trial court in March 1995 — is the ultimate victor in a five year court battle with Lotus. The larger context is that there are a plethora of cases by the federal trial and appellate courts, ranging from conservative (the First Circuit now being the most conservative circuit) to liberal in applying copyright law to software user interfaces.
While the specific issues in the Lotus case had been rendered almost obsolete by the passage of time (the programs at issue involved a non-graphical user interface), the larger issues of whether traditional copyright principles applied to user interfaces — and which the Supreme Court was expected to address — remains a burning issue in the software industry. The inability of the Court to provide much-needed guidance is a great disappointment.
TLB Comment: The legal issues and the ups and downs of this case have been covered extensively in the TLB. Our articles are collected under Copyright Law at our Web site: www.gesmer.com. The First Circuit’s opinion and a large number of Supreme Court briefs (many “friend of the court” briefs were filed by computer industry companies and associations) are collected at the following Web site:http://server.berkeley.edu/HTLJ/lvb/lvbindex.html