Software Copyright

Computer software, more specifically the program code, is protected by copyright as a ""literary work"". There may also be other types of copyright work associated with some computer software. For example, graphical user interfaces (""GUIs"") or elements of them may be protected as artistic works, some animated graphical sequences might be considered as ‘films’, and music associated with the software (e.g. games software) may be a copyright work. Database rights can also play a significant role in protecting computer programs.

The (literary) copyright in a computer program is not only infringed by taking a direct copy of the code (source code or compiled code) but also by versions of the program re-written or otherwise converted into another computer language, these being considered infringing ""adaptations"" of the original work. When you run a program on a computer there is normally some copying of the program within your computer’s memory, so a copyright licence is needed: this is why when you buy computer software you are effectively buying a copyright licence to use the software and must use the software in accordance with the terms of the licence.

There are also circumstances in which copyright in a computer program might be infringed even without taking a copy of the code itself. For example if, using an original computer program for ""inspiration"", the same functionality is provided by writing a new program having the same or very similar program components then, even if none of the original code is actually used, the copyright in the original program may in some cases be infringed.

Particularly where there is no direct copying of code, line for line, it can be difficult to prove that copying has actually occurred. One way of trying to make copying easier to detect is to include redundant code or program components in amongst the real code. If an alleged copy includes the same redundant program components, even if they are not line for line copies, it can provide a very strong inference that copying has occurred.

This is a complex and evolving area of law. It is not possible to give anything more than a very brief introduction here but if you have a specific question about copyright in software then a member of our legal services team will be happy to help you. If you have a question about a dispute relating to copyright then a member of our dispute resolution team can help you. 

This information is simplified and must not be taken as a definitive statement of the law or practice.