An EU court adviser said on Tuesday that copyright protection cannot be claimed on software functions. The implications of this statement are huge, especially considering the fierce parent wars currently consuming the mobile world. Reuters reports:

The non-binding opinion by Yves Bot, an advocate-general at the Luxembourg-based EU Court of Justice (ECJ), is in line with a verdict reached by the High Court of England and Wales in July last year. ECJ judges will rule on the case next year. SAS Institute took legal action against World Programing Ltd (WPL) in 2009, saying the British software company had infringed its copyrights by copying its programs and manuals — even though WPL had designed its products without access to SAS’s source code.

In my personal opinion, the decision this adviser made should be heavily considered by not just EU judges, but US judges as well. Why is that, you ask? Companies like Apple are patenting things left and right without having really invented anything. I can see someone patenting a new physical mechanism on a device, but to patent software ideas is just silly, as they’re usually obvious aspects of a software program. In addition, software patents essentially disrupt the innovation that keeps software from evolving into its next useful iteration.

Currently, a huge patent war is engulfing the mobile industry. Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and a few other companies are all suing Google and various Android manufacturers over patent violations. At first glance, you’d think Google was doing something incredible evil, supposedly stealing all of these other ideas. However, when you take a closer look, you will easily spot the fundamental flaw in the patent system that so many companies nowadays are unfortunately abusing. Most of the patents in question were either acquired from another company for the sole purpose of suing Google (or making a quick buck in general), or they are patents that protect questionable property.

Software Ideas Cannot Be Copyrighted, Says EU Court AdviserI’m a huge proponent of open source. When I write software, I usually release it under some sort of open source license — the New BSD license being my current favorite. While I do not mind at all if someone wants to use my code elsewhere, I also appreciate it when they retain attribution where it’s due. That is, I’m not going to sue if someone removes a copyright header from a source file I wrote, but I’ll probably nag the “offender” a bit!

When companies distribute software under a proprietary license, they essentially want the source code to remain a secret, probably to prevent competitors from duplicating features they have worked hard on. When programmers who do not have access to the original source code want to re-implement the feature in question, it means they have to reverse engineer the software. Two methods of reverse engineering software:

  • Analysis of the program’s input and output — A programmer simply observes how the program performs given a certain input, and attempts to emulate the output.
  • Binary disassembly — This method involves disassembling the binary file distributed to the end-user into machine code. While the actual disassembly is simple enough to perform, fully understanding it might not be depending on the programmer’s knowledge and ability.

The legality of reverse engineering completely depends on what the intentions are. For example, if you want to reverse engineer Windows (e.g., ReactOS), you’re fine legally as long as you don’t use any proprietary code from Windows itself. Reverse engineering, in fact, is almost always legal (even if you are disassembling the binary code and modifying it) as long as you adhere to the copyright laws, which typically prohibit you from redistributing the proprietary code or modified binary.

Coming back from a bit of a tangent, the fog surrounding software patents has been thick for quite some time now. Obviously companies are profiting off of them. For example, a recent estimate by Goldman Sachs said Microsoft is raking in $444 million annually off of Android patent licenses. Of course, some of those patents are probably justifiably valid, but there’s no doubt there are a few that protect frivolous things such as aspects of design or an outdated feature in software. In fact, Barnes & Noble has contested the patents Microsoft is using against Android manufacturers, laying them out in detail. It turns out quite a few are indeed protecting things like Web browser loading icons and an obsolete system for loading images in the background.

So, what’s your take? Should companies be able to patent software ideas like swipe to unlock? Who’s up for a completely new patent system? I know I am.