Can you really copyright a programming language?

So the other day, an interesting question came up during our coffee break: Can a programming language have copyrights?

Being a web designing and development company, the question piqued our interests and we spent a good amount of our research time behind it.

To begin with, imagine copyright for the English language. Or any other language, for that matter. Having to pay for every language you want to use on a yearly basis. And if you don’t cough up the money, you could be put behind the bars for using it illegally.

Sounds weird, right?

Isn’t it the same with programming languages? Or is it?
Is it okay to have copyrights on programming languages? More importantly, is it possible to patent them?

To answer these questions, we delved deeper.

What is a Programming Language?

A programming language is defined as a “vocabulary and a set of grammatical rules for instructing a computer or a computing device to perform certain tasks by commands.”

Each programming language has a syntax and a specific set of keywords that helps to organize program instructions. These commands are converted into a code which can be easily understood by computers.

Irrespective of which programming language you are using, you will have to convert it into machine language so the computer devices can understand the commands. For doing this, you have 2 options:

  1. Compile the program
  2. Interpret the program

How Were Programming Languages Built?

Charles Babbage began to build his difference engine in 1822, a machine made to compute the values of polynomial functions. Ever since then, computers have required a means of instruction for them to be able to perform specific tasks.

The first high-level programming languages originated in the 1950s. They came in 2 waves; the first major languages and the second major languages, which are in use till date.

Since the origination of the first major languages, thousands of programming languages have evolved in the last seven decades. And in the future, there will surely be many more.

With a significant advent of this kind, one question comes to mind: Can you copyright a programming language?

To answer this question, we will be looking at some interesting events of the past. This will help bring out a clearer perspective on why it is allowed or not allowed to copyright a programming language.

What are Copyrights ?

A copyright is a legal right. It grants the creator of the work its permissions. These permissions include the conditions under which others can use the work, or if they can use it at all.

Obtaining copyrights has different methods in different places. Somewhere, all you need to do is put down your original material in a tangible form and it will become copyrighted material automatically.

Meanwhile, some countries have a special department where you’ll have to apply for the copyrights of your work.

Can You Copyright a Programming Language ?

To answer if it is possible to patent a programming language, one must imagine the consequences of the act.

Programming languages are commands placed in a series. These commands are made of words borrowed from the English language. These commands help in making an action possible.

For example, if you need to add two figures, there’s a command for that. If you want to type a message, there’s another command for that, and so on.

Thus, when you try to put a copyright on a programming language you created, you are trying to protect the methodology behind making a thing work.

Taking an analogy, when a chef makes a certain dish on the menu, it is not his dish. He makes it in his own manner, but he does not have a copyright on the dish because it is just an amalgamation of various ingredients he used in the way he liked, for a targeted outcome.

Similarly, when a programmer writes a program, they are using words, which are labeled as facts in the law, and methods, which are held unprotectable by the law. Copyrighting a programming language would mean that the chef can copyright a dish just because he made it off the menu. Now, would that be right?

The question, ‘Can copyright protect a language?’ has a couple of interesting stories attached to it. Let’s talk about them.

Oracle v/s Google

Years ago, the two software giants were fighting against each other on similar grounds.

The story began in 1995 when Sun Microsystems, Oracle’s predecessor, developed a programming language called Java. Along with the language, they also carved out some software tools, designed to work for the language itself.

Subsequently, Sun also came up with a set of commands which could be used as requesting operations. These commands were predefined and followed strict rules.

Years later, Google launched its Android software. This software had a programming methodology which appeared to be borrowed from Java. The command words and rules attached to them were kept the same by Google, to make it easier for programmers who already knew Java to be able to use the Android software.

Seeing this as a breach to the copyright law, Oracle sued Google. Technically, Oracle was claiming protection against a set of words and the rules they carried; which is the vocabulary and grammar of the programming language.

In 2012, the jury trial’s ruling came out in Google’s favor. In 2014, the Federal Circuit partially reversed the ruling in Oracle’s favor. A second jury trial still ruled in favor of Google in 2016. Oracle then went on to appeal to the U. S. Court of Appeals and they found Google’s reuse of the API to be unfair, ruling in Oracle’s favor.

The unending battle between the software giants continues. Currently, Oracle has the upper hand but Google has petitioned to the Supreme Court to rule on the fundamental questions about the copyrightability of APIs.

SAS V/S WPL

The case of Oracle is being fought in the United States. This brings up another interesting question: Are programming languages copyrighted anywhere in the world?

SAS Institute Inc. created a successful analytical system called SAS. It was a set of programs used for statistical analysis. Any user with a license could write their own programs using the SAS language. However, if the user wanted to use a different software after developing the program in SAS, they would have to start all over again.

Looking at this as an opportunity to create a product that could make the transfer smoother, WPS was developed. Its makers, World Programming, had made the product to imitate many of the SAS functionalities.

As a result, SAS sued WPS for copyright infringement. They had raised two points. First, for the WPS product itself. And the second, stating that the user’s manual for that product had an uncanny resemblance with that of SAS.

The EU gave a verdict in accordance with the copyright rules, which stated that copyright protects not the ideas, but the expression of ideas.

Hence, SAS lost the case against WPL. However, they were charged for the copyright infringement on their user’s manual.

With this case, it was made clear that even the European Union does not believe in copyrights for programming languages.

Are Programming Languages Like All Other Languages ?

Most web design and development services will have their own opinion about this.
According to the law in most countries, an idea, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery along with a process or a system cannot be protected.

Any language, be it computer or communicative, is made up of words. And words are the facts of a language. So literally, just putting them one after the other should not get you into trouble.

However, for literature across the world, copyrights apply to the authors’ works. While you cannot protect the language (since you did not create it), you surely can protect your work (since you created it).

For programming languages, nevertheless, the analogy may not be this simple. Protection is given to expressions in any form of a computer program. Although, the ideas and principles that make up a computer program cannot be protected.

So, for the much-awaited question, “Can you copyright a computer language?”, the answer is, no.

Conclusion

As a web designing and development company, we can’t help but wonder what a different world it would be if copyrights were applicable to programming languages. But as long as people keep pouring their creativity and creating brilliant new programs and languages, the future of web development looks as bright as the sun.

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