Brief Fact Summary. Accolade, Inc. (Defendant) copied and then disassembled Sega Enterprises Ltd.’s (Sega’s) (Plaintiff) video game programs in order to discover the requirements for compatibility with Plaintiff’s console.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Disassembly of a copyrighted object code is a fair use of the material if it is the only way to access uncopyrighted elements of the code and there is a legitimate reason for seeking to do so.
To determine whether a product feature is functional, the Ninth Circuit considers four factors: (1) whether the design yields a utilitarian advantage; (2) whether alternative designs are available; (3) whether advertising touts the utilitarian advantages of the design; and (4) whether the particular design results from a comparatively simple or inexpensive method of manufacture.View Full Point of Law
Issue. Is disassembly of a copyrighted object code a fair use of the material if it is the only way to access uncopyrighted elements of the code and there is a legitimate reason for seeking to do so?
Held. (Reinhardt, J.) Yes. Disassembly of a copyrighted object code is a fair use of the material if it is the only way to access uncopyrighted elements of the code and there is a legitimate reason for seeking to do so. Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976 lists four factors to be considered in determining whether a certain use is a fair one: (1) the purpose and character of the use; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the market for the copyrighted work. First, Accolade (Defendant) only sought to become a legitimate competitor in the field of Sega (Plaintiff) compatible video games. It therefore had a legitimate, non-exploitative purpose for copying Plaintiff’s code. Second, Plaintiff’s video game programs must be afforded a lower degree of protection than more traditional literary works as they contain unprotected aspects that cannot be examined without copying. Third, the fact that Defendant disassembled entire programs written by Sega (Plaintiff) should receive little weight. Fourth, Accolade’s (Defendant) copying may have affected the market, but not significantly, as customers tend to buy many video games, not just one. Accordingly, Defendant has the better case on the fair use issue. Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.
Discussion. An issue similar to reverse engineering was raised in Triad Systems Corp. v. Southeastern Express Co., 64 F.3d 1330 (9th Cir. 1995). In that case, Southeastern copied Triad’s software into Triad’s computer as part of an attempt to service the computer. The Ninth Circuit concluded that such copying was not fair use because it was neither creative nor transformative and did not provide the marketplace with new creative works. Instead, the copies made by Southeastern undoubtedly lowered the value of Triad’s copyright.