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Is it possible to see a computer program?

The EU Court of Justice recently ruled that computer screen images are not covered by the Software Directive.

Computer programs have been copyright protected throughout the EU since the early 1990s when the Software Directive was introduced.
The principle has always been that the copyright protection covers the software’s source code – the code written by programmers – and object code which translates the source code into machine code which can then be read by the computer. But what about the screen image? This was the question before the EU Court in a case from the Czech Republic.
No blanket protection
The EU Court ruled that the screen image is what enables ‘communication’ between the program and the user. But the Court did not see the screen image as an expression of the computer program as such because the screen image does not make it possible to reproduce the computer program. Accordingly, the screen image is not covered by the copyright protection afforded by the Software Directive.
That being said, a screen image may be protected by copyright if it meets the normal requirements for a work to be original. This means that the screen image must be the author’s own intellectual creation.
If an element of the screen image is only there because of its technical function – that is, if it enables the user to ‘communicate’ with the computer program – the element will not be covered by the copyright protection.
Norrbom Vinding notes:
  • that the Czech proceedings did not concern copyright infringement; and

  • that it cannot be ruled out, therefore, that more specific questions may be referred to the EU Court in the future about the scope of the general copyright protection of on-screen images and similar questions.
The above does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such

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