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Court Split Over Copyright Protection For Computer Program

January 16, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ An evenly divided Supreme Court today denied copyright protection to the user-friendly part of a computer program that tells how to use the system.

The justices, by a 4-4 vote, upheld a lower court’s ruling in a case involving the ``menu command″ portion of Lotus Development Corp.’s Lotus 1-2-3 software system.

A federal appeals court had rejected Lotus’ argument that it should be granted copyright protection in its suit against Borland International Inc.

In other cases, the court:

_Refused to shield Ford Motor Co. from being sued in a New Hampshire court for selling a car without an air bag before federal law required the equipment.

_Rejected a free-speech appeal and let stand the government’s aggressive policy of fining television and radio broadcasters for airing indecent programs at certain times of the day.

_Rejected an appeal by two generic drug manufacturers that sought to make patented AZT, the primary drug for treating AIDS.

_Turned down the appeal of a fat, former Virginia prison inmate who says authorities did not do enough to accommodate his obesity

The computer copyright case was argued before eight justices on Jan. 8, when most of the nation’s capital was shut down because of a blizzard that left Justice John Paul Stevens stranded at his winter home in Florida.

But Stevens previously had disqualified himself from the case, for unannounced reasons.

Although today’s vote upholds the lower court’s decision, its status as a legal precedent is shaky because the issue could return to the court when all nine justices are available to hear the case.

The case had been watched closely by the computer industry and copyright lawyers. Each had expected the court to rule for the first time just how copyright law may be used to protect computer software features.

Borland stock was up 1 1/4 to 15 3/8 in late morning trading. IBM, which has acquired Lotus, was trading at 87 1/2, up 1 3/4.

Today’s decision, despite being a clear victory for Borland, will not resolve the larger issue.

The court’s brief, unsigned opinion gave no rationale, and did not say which justices voted to uphold or reverse the lower court.

Lotus had sued Borland International Inc., saying it wrongfully imitated the command menu in the Lotus 1-2-3 system. Lotus 1-2-3 is a spreadsheet program that provides tabular and graphic display formats. Users operate the program through its command menu.

The program was widely used after being introduced in 1983, and other companies began offering competition. Lotus, now an IBM subsidiary based in Cambridge, Mass., sued Borland in 1990 over the command menus Borland used in its spreadsheet formats ``Quattro″ and ``Quattro Pro.″

A federal judge ruled that Borland had infringed on the Lotus 1-2-3 menu.

But the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling and threw out the case. The court noted that federal copyright law protects certain aspects of computer programs, but said the command menu does not qualify for protection because it amounts to a ``method of operation.″

The appeals court said the menu was similar to the buttons on a videocassette recorder.

During last week’s oral argument, Lotus attorney Henry B. Gutman told the justices the software’s command menu was a literary work entitled to the same protection given to musical scores or works of choreography.

But Borland’s lawyer, Gary L. Reback, said the words in the menu were more like basic English grammar, which cannot be copyrighted in the same way as written English compositions.

Reback said Lotus should have to meet the higher standard required for patent protection.

The case is Lotus Development vs. Borland International, 94-2003.

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