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Computer Associates International v. Altai, Inc


    Citation. Computer Assocs. Int’l v. Altai, 982 F.2d 693, 1992 U.S. App. LEXIS 33369, 119 A.L.R. Fed. 741, 92 Cal. Daily Op. Service 10213 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 17, 1992)

    Brief Fact Summary. Upon discovering that Altai, Inc. (Defendant) may have appropriated parts of its “Adapter” computer program, Computer Associates International (Plaintiff) sued Defendant for copyright infringement and trade secret misappropriation.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. For a finding of copyright infringement, the protectable, nonliteral elements of one computer program must be very similar to the same elements in a second computer program.

    Facts. Computer Associates International (CA) (Plaintiff) designed, developed, and marketed numerous types of computer programs, including “CA-Scheduler,” a job-scheduling program containing a subprogram named “Adapter.”  Adapter was a wholly integrated component of CA-Scheduler with no capacity for independent use.  In 1982, Altai, Inc. (Defendant) started to market its own job-scheduling program named “Zeke.”  Then, Defendant decided to rewrite Zeke to run in conjunction with a different operating system, and Altai’s (Defendant) president, Williams, approached Arney, a computer programmer who work for Plaintiff, about working for Defendant.  When Arney left Plaintiff to work for Defendant, he took copies with him of the source code for two versions of Adapter and used them to design Altai’s (Defendant) new component-program, “Oscar” (Version 3.4).  Arney copied approximately 30% of Oscar’s code from Plaintiff’s Adapter program.  When Plaintiff discovered that Defendant may have appropriated parts of Adapter, it brought this copyright and trade secret misappropriation action against Altai (Defendant).  A rewrite of Oscar began, named Oscar 3.5.  The district court awarded Plaintiff $364,444 in actual damages and apportioned profits for copyright infringement regarding Oscar 3.4.  However, the court denied relief on Plaintiff’s second claim, finding that Oscar 3.5 was not substantially similar to Adapter.  In addition, the court concluded that Plaintiff’s state law trade secret misappropriation claim against Defendant was preempted by the federal copyright act.  On appeal, Altai (Defendant) conceded liability for the copying of Adapter into Oscar 3.4 and raised no challenge to the award of damages.  Therefore, only CA’s (Plaintiff) second and third claims were addressed on appeal.

    Issue. For a finding of copyright infringement, must the protectable, nonliteral elements of one computer program be very similar to the same elements in a second computer program?

    Held. (Walker, J.)  Yes.  For a finding of copyright infringement, the protectable, nonliteral elements of one computer program must be very similar to the same elements in a second computer program.  It is now well settled that the literal elements of computer programs, i.e., their source and object codes, are the subject of copyright protection.  Altai (Defendant) made sure that the literal elements of its revamped Oscar program were no longer substantially similar to the literal elements of CA’s (Plaintiff) Adapter.  If the nonliteral structures of literary works are protected by copyright (and by law computer programs are literary works), then the nonliteral structures of computer programs are also protected by copyright.  It is a fundamental principle of copyright law that a copyright does not protect an idea, but only the expression of the idea.  A three-step procedure, based on the abstractions test the district court utilized, should be used to determine whether the nonliteral elements of two or more computer programs are very similar.  As applied to computer programs, the abstractions test will include the first step in the examination for substantial similarity inquiry focuses on whether Defendant copied any aspect of this protected expression, along with an assessment of the copied portion’s relative importance regarding Plaintiff’s overall program.  After reviewing the record in this case, this court can discern no error on the part of the district court judge.  Affirmed.

    Discussion. The court discussed the doctrine of merger.  The doctrine’s underlying principle is that when there is basically only one way to express an idea, the idea and its expression are inseparable and copyright is no bar to copying that expression.  In the computer context, this means that when specific instructions even though previously copyrighted are the only and necessary means of completing an assigned task, their later use by another will not amount to infringement.  When one considers the fact that programmers generally strive to create programs “that meat the user’s needs in the most efficient manner,” the applicability of the merger doctrine to computer programs becomes compelling.


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