A US district court has mildly embarrassed a federal appeals court after ruling that SAS cannot copyright the ideas behind its analytics software – rendering a senior judicial row over national sovereignty between the UK and US largely irrelevant.
Rodney Gilstrap, a US federal district judge ruled on 26 October that SAS could not copyright the functions (as distinct from code) of its eponymous suite as part of a long-running dispute with UK-based software firm World Programming Ltd (WPL).
What began more than a decade ago as an unremarkable copyright spat rapidly spiralled into multinational legal warfare and was last in the headlines when irate British appeal judges accused their US counterparts of infringing British sovereignty as they ruled against US-headquartered SAS.
As previously reported, WPL obtained a copy of SAS’s analytics product, observed how it worked, then created a competing product using the same basic functions but not the same code. SAS sued in 2010 and, after losing in the UK’s courts, tried going over the heads of British judges to the EU. EU judges also ruled against it in 2012, finding that software functionality is not subject to copyright, so SAS decided to re-run the whole case through local US courts, which obligingly ruled in its favour.
Except for District Judge Gilstrap, who handed down a preliminary judgment [PDF, 16 pages] last Monday stating: “The Court is of the opinion that the copyright claims of SAS in the above-captioned case have not been shown to be copyrightable, and therefore should be and hereby are DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. However, the preclusive effect of such dismissal is tailored to this case and the asserted works.”
“Dismissed with prejudice” is a US legal term that bars the claim from being heard again in the same court.
The judge explained in his ruling that in software cases, US copyright law allows the copyrighting both of literal items (code) and “non-literal” items such as “structure, sequence, organization, operational modules, user interface.”
He explained: “SAS here alleges that WPL has copied non-literal elements, namely the SAS System’s input formats, output designs, and naming and syntax.”
“WPL,” continued the judge, “established that at least some of the asserted works were unprotectable because they were in the public domain.” These included the SAS Language itself as well as open-source elements of SAS’s flagship product.
In response, SAS merely parroted its earlier claims that its software was copyrightable; something which did not impress DJ Gilstrap, who sneered at the business for “simply [having] repeated and repeated that the SAS System was ‘creative’.”
The judge’s ruling flies in the face of one made by the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which accused British judges of having “shown a lack of respect for American courts and American law” for daring to uphold previous rulings against SAS.
When it won a previous US ruling against WPL, SAS tried to enforce it in the UK by applying to London’s High Court for permission to legally divert WPL’s UK revenues into its own pockets.
Irritated judges told the US company to stop being so cheeky, with Lord Justice Males later describing US state courts’ rulings as having “infringed the sovereignty of the United Kingdom” for making judicial orders against WPL property in the UK that were outside their jurisdiction.
A full trial of the US federal case is pencilled in for 4 January next year. ®