Aharonian v. Gonzales (N.D.Cal. 2006).
Although he operates primarily through an e-mail list rather than through a website, Greg Aharonian is the honorary trailblazer for today’s intellectual property law blogs (including Patently-O). He is also an activist.
In a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Government, Aharonian requested a declaratory judgment that copyright law cannot be applied to sourcecode.
Specifically, Aharonian hopes to build a powerful database of sourcecode to be used as a prior art repository — but does not want to be held liable for copyright infringement. In a challenge to the statute, Aharonian argued that computer code is entirely made up of “algorithms” and “data structures,” both of which are uncopyrightable “ideas” or “processes” and additionally that the vague language of the Copyright Act is insufficient to support sourcecode copyrights. (And raised other arguments).
Standing: With any DJ action, there is often a question of standing. Here Aharonian was able to show that he was suffering a specific economic harm under the law (inability to build his database) and that economic harm, according to the court, was sufficient to establish standing.
This is not to say that all allegations of economic harm related to copyright law will be sufficient to meet the constitutional requirements for standing. For example, the mere assertion of a desire to copy, with no showing of an actual past or future business practice or actual economic benefit from copying, would not suffice. Here, however, plaintiff has an existing business which involves searching for potentially copyrighted prior art, and he has made a credible argument that incorporating (i.e. copying) such material into an automated search tool would result in additional profits.
Software as Math: The Aharonian machine will apparently transform computer code into a standardized logic framework and store that framework. The court used that pont to avoid addressing the question head-on:
It would be unwise indeed for this court to make sweeping general pronouncements about the nature of software or the relationship between patent and copyright law, particularly where making such a pronouncement would have no clear effect on plaintiff’s ability to create his proposed database.
The court did take pains to distinguish patent and copyright cases — thus predicting their conclusion that both forms of protection are available for software:
A declaration that software consists entirely of “ideas”—data structures and algorithms—has no bearing on the applicability of copyright law to software source code, which, like all copyrightable material, is a particular written expression of ideas. . . . In sum, if plaintiff copies source code that is protected by copyright law, he infringes the copyright regardless of whether the ideas underlying the source code are patentable. Conversely, if plaintiff independently creates software that is functionally identical to other software, he does not infringe any copyright on the other software’s source code, even if his independently created source code is nearly identical to the copyrighted source code.
Vague Statute: On the issues of vagueness, the court essentially found that prior controlling precedent had interpreted the scope of the statute — leaving no room for the district court to hold otherwise.
Dismissed. The case is now on appeal.
Link: Website dedicated to the lawsuit.