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Legally speaking: how to interpret the Lotus decision (and how not to)


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On June 28, 1990, a federal court judge in Boston made public his decision in favor of Lotus Development Corporation in its software copyright lawsuit against Paperback Software. People in the software industry had been waiting for this decision since the lawsuit was first filed in January 1987, certain that it would be a landmark case and would resolve many vexing questions about copyright protection for user interfaces.The trade press has abounded with varying interpretations of Judge Keeton's opinion in the Lotus case: Some have said the decision is a narrow one, making illegal only the direct copying of another firm's interface [9]; Some have seen it has a much broader ruling—one that will have a chilling effect on development of competitive software products [5]; Others have asserted the case draws a reasonable line, and will have a positive effect overall [4]; Several have argued the ruling will be harmful because it ignores the interests of users of software, and will make standardization of user interfaces impossible to achieve. [3] Still others perceive the opinion as only setting the stage for a new confrontation over the issues in the appellate courts. [1] Lotus has given some indication of how broadly it interprets the Paperback decision by filing a new round of user interface copyright lawsuits against two of its other spreadsheet competitors.his column, rather than just adding one more interpretation of the Lotus decision to the bin of those already expressed, will give the reader a glimpse of the nature of the legal process and of judicial opinions so he or she can see why people can interpret the Lotus opinion differently. The following three factors make it difficult to know what the Lotus decision means: 1) The legal process is not yet over, and the meaning of the case will depend in part on the outcome of this further process. 2) While Judge Keeton makes some statements that seem to suggest his ruling is a narrow one, some of his other statements could be interpreted much more broadly. 3) Even from unambiguous statements Judge Keeton makes, different people can draw reasonable but nonetheless differing inferences about what the judge would do in similar (though somewhat different) cases. For these reasons, it is impossible to know with any certainty what the law concerning copyright protection for user interfaces is in the aftermath of the Lotus decision.

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