software producers likely to feel heat as court decision opens door to
by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published
in Business in Vancouver
, Issue #286 April 18, 1995 High Tech Office column
U.S. court decision
may change the way you and your business purchase and use software.
legislators have had difficulty applying concepts of copyright to new
digital media. In particular, can someone copyright the "look and
feel" of a piece of software?
in convincing the courts that Microsoft Windows violated
in its attempt to give PC users some of the ease of use that Apple
had built into its Macintosh computers. Lotus, back in 1990,
however, was successful in its suit against now-defunct Paperback
Software. It claimed that Paperback's VP-Planner, in copying Lotus
1-2-3's menu structure, had violated its copyright, even though it
hadn't copied any of the underlying source code-- the actual writing
in the program. Source code is considered a literary creation, the
same as any other piece of writing, and is clearly protected by
decision like to compare software to driving a car-- if every
has to create a new user interface from scratch, consumers are in the
same position they'd be in if every different car model had the
wheel, brakes, and gas pedal in a different place.
turned its attention to Borland International, whose Quattro
and Quattro-Pro spreadsheets gave users the option of choosing to use
new Quattro-style menus or menus patterned after Lotus's. This suit,
too, was successful for Lotus, resulting in years of financial
for Borland, as the suit made its way up through the appeals process.
month, the U.S.
First Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the previous Massachusetts
District Court decision, giving software developers legal permission
to produce programs that emulate their competitors'-- not just by
the same results, but by letting users work in the same way.
amount of time
it takes to produce a piece of software, don't expect instant changes.
This ruling, however, makes it possible that the software industry
will see the same sorts of changes that shook up computer hardware
sales in the past decade. Over that period, name-brand PC hardware
manufacturers lost more and more market share to clones-- lesser-known
or no-name manufacturers which could produce a similar product and
sell it at a lower price. The resulting market shakeup eventually
forced traditional manufacturers such as IBM and Compaq
cut prices and revamp their marketing practices after a few years of
has mostly remained
immune to the hardware price wars, with companies and consumers
on a few products within any software category, and seeming willing
to continue to pay high prices to a few companies.
opens up the possibility of software-cloning and price wars, and brings
with it a whole series of possibilities, both good and bad. Consumers
will welcome dramatically lowered software prices, and there's some
evidence that lower prices result in less software piracy, a boon to
on software prices also means software companies will reduce services--
most likely by cutting support for users. Free technical support for
registered software users is already being cut back; 1-800 phone
are being replaced by calls where the user pays for the privilege of
waiting in a hold queue, or by 1-900 pay-by-the-minute numbers.
free support is being replaced by 90-day support.
will welcome low-priced clone software that offers the same menu
and functions as the market leaders, others will wonder whether there
will be any support available when they have problems with the
program hours before a critical deadline. Just as some users choose
to pay more for IBM or Compaq hardware and the security of dealing
with a known manufacturer, software consumers will, for the first time,
be faced with the same issues.
are able to build low-cost machines using parts from overseas
lines. Similarly, software cloners can make use of large numbers of
highly skilled and often under-utilized programmers available for low
pay in countries around the world. (As it is, many traditional
projects are already being sub-contracted to programmers in places
like former Soviet-bloc states and India.)
judges, in their 25-page decision, ruled that software menus are a
"method of operation" and, as such, not covered by copyright. They
may not have anticipated that their decision could
I wouldn't be
if this decision plays a major role in changing this marketplace from
a relatively stable cash cow for a few large companies to something
considerably more competitive.
dramatically change the whole consumer-software industry.