Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 3 NO. 11 / JUNE 1989

Getting Started

Copyright Basics For Beginning Programmers--And Everyone Else


If you write computer programs--or just have thought about it--you need to understand copyright. In this and following columns, I'll try to explain the basics of copyright for the computer programmer; it's not an easy subject and, like the computer industry itself, it's constantly evolving.

A copyright notice consists of
three things: 1. The word "Copy-
right", its abbreviation or sym-
bol; 2. The date of first publica-
tion of the work; and 3. The name
of the owner of the copyright.

As an editor and author, I deal with the nuts and bolts of copyrights every day. I don't claim to be an expert in copyright; if you have a specific copyright question, the best single piece of advice I can give you is to consult an attorney who specializes in it. As a former lawyer who studied copyright and handled copyright matters, I hope to teach you the concepts, so that you can decide when or if you need to talk to a lawyer and then be a more perceptive consumer of legal services.

Also, well focus here on copyright under the federal law. There are state laws that still apply to create a so-called common law copyright, but federal law is more important for computer programs than state laws are.

What Is a Copyright?

Most simply and narrowly stated, copyright is the right to keep anyone from copying or using your intellectual work without your permission. A copyright in a work--the bundle of rights you have regarding that work--must be distinguished from the work itself, say, actual computer program code. This may sound odd to you, but the idea really isn't so foreign. For example, your house and the land it sits on is a thing, but without the legally defined bundle of rights that we call real property, "your house" might not even be yours. When you buy it, you not only want its sunny dining room, but you want even more the right to keep everyone else out of it!

Copyright applies to movies, sculpture, computer programs and almost every other tangible form of communication. The federal copyright laws, contained in Title 17 of the U.S. Code, protects " . .original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device."

That's a mouthful, but think of it this way: it protects a tangible expression of an original work. Let's take the first of these phrases-- tangible expression. If you have an idea for a totally new killer game floating around in your head, you can't copyright it; it's not tangible and it's only an idea. But the second you turn that idea into code and type it into your ST, it's covered by federal copyright law.

This brings up an important distinction, one you must understand: copyright does not cover ideas, it covers the expression of those ideas. Perhaps a simple and very real example would help here. According to movie industry lore, the go-ahead for the movie Alien was based on a simple concept: "Jaws in outer space." That idea (an implacable, non-human, virtually invincible killer hunting and slaughtering humans in a spaceship) could not have been copyrighted, but the movie based on it could be and, of course, was.

Closer to home, the bare idea of using a graphic interface to manage a computer's operating system is not subject to copyright. The expression of it is. (This has been a touchy subject for some years and will continue to be one. Although the original concept for the Mac interface came from a Xerox think tank, Apple is very protective about its version. At various times, Apple has accused Digital Research, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and others of treading on Apple's copyrighted toes. At least one major lawsuit is still in the courts.) Finally, consider the difference between the idea of a maze game with pursuing monsters and the expression of that idea in Pac Man.

The second phrase above, original work, means that your program must be the product of your own mind. We at START couldn't change the name of LDW Power to, for example, "START Power" and then claim a copyright; it's not original with us. (Note again that the concept of a computer spreadsheet is not subject to copyright; the expression--the program--is.)

A copyright, then, is simply a legal means of protecting creations of the mind. Just as there are laws that let you keep trespassers from taking over your house, copyright laws let you keep trespassers from taking over your program.

How Do I Obtain a Copyright?

At its core, this is easy to answer. The moment you type your new game into your ST, you have a copyright in it. Really, that's it. And that copyright extends fifty years beyond your death, as specified in Title 17.

But if you do create a superior new game, you'll undoubtedly want to share it with someone, your buddy or even a software company. If you just give a copy to either one without doing anything more, you've published your creation; if you didn't put a copyright notice on it, you've probably lost any copyright you had. Your dynamite game goes into the public domain and anyone can copy it or use your code. (There are a number of other ways to prevent this under certain limited circumstances, but the easiest protection is simply to add a Copyright Notice.)

An example of how serious this can be was the recent lawsuit between chipmakers Intel and NEC. Intel created the 8086 microprocessor and licensed it for manufacture by others. NEC created its own version and Intel sued for copyright infringement, among other things. The courts have held (so far) that microcode "hard-wired" into the circuits of a microprocessor can be copyrighted, but since Intel hadn't done enough to protect its copyright by making sure that its licensees put a copyright notice on the chip case, Intel had lost copyright in the 8086 chip. We haven't heard the last word on this, but you can see how seriously the courts treat copyright notices.

If you do put a copyright notice in your code, what does that accomplish? Essentially, it puts the world on notice that you claim a copyright in your game and that no one is free to copy it.

What's Necessary In a Copyright Notice?

To be valid, a copyright must contain three thing's: first, the word "Copyright', "Copr." (its abbreviation) or the circled O. Second, it must contain the date of first publication and, third, it must include the name of the owner of the copyright. This last could be the name of the creator or someone else depending upon the circumstances of its creation, etc.

This notice should be located wherever it will be seen by others. If the game is published as a printed listing, the notice should a part of it. If the game is published only as a runnable program and users are unlikely to look into the object code on the disk, then you should make sure that your copyright notice appears somewhere on the display. The goal here is to make sure that any potential infringer can easily see the notice and know thereby that a copyright is claimed.

What's Next--And a Tip

In the next column, we'll look at registration of a copyright, its whys and wherefores, the differences between a copyright and a trademark and some of the ins-and-outs of copyright.

If you'd like to know more about copyright, pick up a copy of The Copyright Book by attorney William S. Strong at your local bookstore. It's not a substitute for the advice of a knowledgeable attorney, but it is an excellent readable sourcebook that can answer some of the more esoteric questions we can't reach in this column.


The Copyright Book, $6.95. The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02142.