Supreme Court split on Lotus copyright 'User-friendly' guide safeguard taken away

January 17, 1996|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sending a cloud of legal uncertainty over the computer software industry, the Supreme Court yesterday took away copyright protection for a vital part of the Lotus 1-2-3 program for creating spreadsheets.

The case had offered the court a chance to rule broadly on copyrighting the part of a computer program that explains how to use it. But a 4-4 split produced only a narrow ruling on the Lotus spreadsheet itself.

The court upheld a ruling by a federal appeals court in March that nullified a copyright for the menu and sub-menu commands that guide a computer user to generate spreadsheets created by Lotus Development Corp. When the court divides evenly the result is to make a lower-court ruling final, without setting a precedent for other cases.

But until another computer copyright case reaches the Supreme Court, yesterday's action is likely to affect how lower courts deal with legal contests over the commands that make complex computer programs more "user-friendly."

The software industry had voiced deep worry about the Lotus case, saying the federal appeals court ruling under review threatened to undermine copyright not only on menus but also on other commands that guide users in how to run software.

The justices had held a hearing on the Lotus case last week. One of the justices, John Paul Stevens, had disqualified himself months ago without saying why. The remaining eight voted on the case last week, reaching a 4-4 split. The court did not say how each justice had voted.

As usual when it splits 4-4, the court did not issue an opinion explaining the outcome.

The 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits in New York City, said in ruling against the Lotus menus' copyright that a "menu command hierarchy" is simply a method of operating a computer program and cannot be granted a copyright.

Such a hierarchy, the appeals court said, is just like the push-buttons on a video recorder, enabling the operator to make the machine work without going through a series of complex steps. Such methods of operation, it said, are beyond the shield of copyright law.

Lotus had gone to court to try to protect its menu commands from copying by a company that makes competing spreadsheets, Borland International Inc. Borland has published the Quattro and Quattro Pro spreadsheets.

The Supreme Court, in a second ruling yesterday, ruled unanimously that international airlines may be sued for only limited forms of financial claims when passengers die in the crash of an international flight over the sea.

The ruling wiped out $98,000 in damages awarded to the mother and sister of a passenger killed when Soviet planes shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983. The money was awarded for loss of companionship -- a damage the court said may not be awarded for crashes on the high seas.

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