"Inside every living person there is a dead person waiting to
Reg Shoe, "Reaper Man", Terry Pratchett
PROTECT YOUR FREEDOM TO WRITE PROGRAMS
* JOIN THE LEAGUE FOR PROGRAMMING FREEDOM *
PART I - Against User Interface Copyright
Some time ago I received some mail from Marinos Yannikos that
contained some information on the League for Programming Freedom.
After having read it, I came to the conclusion that it was a
worthy cause to spend some attention to. Although the following
largely seems to dedicate itself to 'serious' computers (such as
MS-DOS compatible systems) there is no reason why this should not
apply to machines like ST, TT and Falcon.
The texts contained here were all written by people of the
League for Programming Freedom, and afterwards edited (mostly for
layout) by me.
In June 1990, Lotus won a copyright infringement suit against
Paperback Software, a small company that implemented a
spreadsheet that obeys the same keystroke commands used in Lotus
1-2-3. Paperback was not accused of copying code from 1-2-3 -
only of supporting compatible user commands. Such imitation was
common practice until unexpected court decisions in recent years
extended the scope of copyright law.
Within a week, Lotus went on to sue Borland over Quattro, a
spreadsheet whose usual command language has only a few
similarities to 1-2-3. Lotus claims that these similarities in
keystroke sequences and/or the ability to customize the interface
to emulate 1-2-3 are enough to infringe.
More ominously, Apple Computer has sued Microsoft and Hewlett
Packard for implementing a window system whose displays partially
resemble those of the Macintosh system. Subsequently Xerox sued
Apple for implementing the Macintosh system, which derives some
general concepts from the earlier Xerox Star system. These suits
try to broaden the Lotus decision and establish copyright on a
large class of user interfaces. The Xerox lawsuit was dismissed
because of a technicality; but if it had succeeded, it would
probably have created an even broader monopoly than the Apple
And Ashton-Tate has sued Fox Software for implementing a
database program that accepts the same programming language used
in dBase. This particular lawsuit was dropped by Borland, which
bought Ashton-Tate in 1991, but the possibility of copyrighted
programming languages remains. Adobe claims that the Postscript
language is copyrighted, though it has not sued those who reject
this claim. Wolfram Research claims that the language of
Mathematica is copyrighted and has threatened to sue the
University of California. If a programming language becomes
copyrighted, the impact on users who have spent years writing
programs in the language would be devastating.
While this paper addresses primarily the issue of copyright on
specific user interfaces, most of the arguments apply with added
force to any broader monopoly.
What is a user interface?
A user interface is what you have to learn to operate a machine;
in other words, it is the language you use to communicate with
the machine. The user interface of a typewriter is the layout of
the keys. The user interface of a car includes a steering wheel
for turning, pedals to speed up and slow down, a lever to signal
When the machine is a computer program, the interface includes
that of the computer - -its keyboard, screen and mouse - plus
those aspects specific to the program. These typically include
the commands, menus, programming languages, and the way data is
presented on the screen.
A copyright on a user interface means a government-imposed
monopoly on its use. In the example of the typewriter, this
would mean that each manufacturer would be forced to arrange the
keys in a different layout.
The Purpose of Copyright
In the United States, the Constitution says that the purpose of
copyright is to "promote the progress of science and the useful
Conspicuously absent is any hint of intention to enrich copyright
holders to the detriment of the users of copyrighted works.
The Supreme Court made the reason for this absence explicit,
stating in "Fox Film vs. Doyal" that "The sole interest of the
United States and the primary object in conferring the
[copyright] monopoly lie in the general benefits derived by the
public from the labors of authors."
In other words, since copyright is a government-imposed
monopoly, which interferes with the freedom of the public in a
significant way, it is justified only if the benefit to the
public exceeds the cost to the public.
The spirit of individual freedom must, if anything, incline us
against monopoly. Following either the Supreme Court or the
principle of freedom, the fundamental question is: what value
does user interface copyright offer the public - -and what price
would we have to pay for it?
Reason #1: More incentive is not needed
The developers of the Star, the Macintosh system, 1-2-3 and
dBase claim that without interface copyright there would be
insufficient incentive to develop such products. This is
disproved by their own actions.
Until 1986, user interface copyright was unheard of. The
computer industry developed under a system where imitating a user
interface was both standard practice and lawful. Under this
system, today's plaintiffs made their decisions to develop their
products. When faced with the choice in actuality, they decided
that they did, indeed, have "enough incentive".
Even though competitors were free to imitate these interfaces,
this did not prevent most of the original products from being
successful and producing a large return on the investment. In
fact, they were so successful that they became de facto
standards. (The Xerox Star was a failure due to poor marketing
even though nothing similar existed.)
Even if interface copyright would increase the existing
incentive, additional improvements in user interfaces would not
necessarily result. Once you suck a bottle dry, more suction
won't get more out of it. The existing incentive is so great
that it may well suffice to motivate everyone who has an idea
worth developing. Extra incentive, at the public's expense, will
only increase the price of these developments.
Reason #2: 'Look and Feel' will not protect small companies
The proponents of user interface copyright claim that it would
protect small companies from being wiped out by large
competitors. Yet look around: today's interface copyright
plaintiffs are large, established companies. User interface
copyright is crushing when the interface is an effective
standard. However, a small company is vulnerable when its
product is little used, and its interface is little known. In
this situation, user interface copyright won't help the small
Imagine a small company with 10,000 customers: a large company
may believe there is a potential market of a million users, not
reached by the small company, for a similar product. The large
company will try to use its marketing might to reach them before
the small company can.
User interface copyright won't change this outcome. Forcing the
large company to develop an incompatible interface will have
little effect on the majority of potential customers - -those who
have not learned the other interface. They will buy from the
large company anyway.
What's more, interface copyright will work against the small
company if the large company's product becomes an effective
standard. Then new customers will have an additional reason to
prefer the large company. To survive, the small company will need
to offer compatibility with this standard - -but, due to user
interface copyright, it will not be allowed to do so.
Instead of relying upon monopolistic measures, small companies
are most successful when they rely on their own inherent
advantages: agility, low overhead, and willingness to take risks.
Reason #3: Diversity in interfaces is not desirable
The copyright system was designed to encourage diversity; its
details work toward this end. Diversity is the primary goal when
it comes to novels, songs, and the other traditional domains of
copyright. Readers want to read novels they have not yet read.
But diversity is not the goal of interface design. Users of any
kind of machinery want consistency in interfaces because this
promotes ease of use. Thus, by standardizing symbols on
automobile dashboards, we have made it possible for any licensed
driver to operate any car without additional instruction.
Incompatibility in interfaces is a price to be paid when
worthwhile, not a benefit.
Significantly better interfaces may be hard to think of, but it
is easy to invent interfaces which are merely different.
Interface copyright will surely succeed in encouraging this sort
of "interface development". The result will be gratuitous
Reason #4: Meaningful competition is reduced
Under the regime of interface copyright, there will be no
compatible competition for established products. For a user to
switch to a different brand will require retraining.
But users don't like to retrain, not even for a significant
improvement. For example, the Dvorak keyboard layout, invented
several decades ago, enables a typist to type faster and more
accurately than is possible with the standard "QWERTY" layout.
Nonetheless, few people use it. Even new typists don't learn
Dvorak, because they want to learn the layout used on most
Alternative products that require such an effort by the consumer
are not effective competition. The monopoly on the established
interface will yield in practice a monopoly on the functionality
accessed by it. This will cause higher prices and less
technological advancement - -a windfall for lucky businesses, but
bad for the public at large.
Reason #5: Incompatibility does not go away
If there had been a 50-year interface copyright for the steering
wheel, it would have expired not long ago. During the span of
the copyright, we would have got cars steered with joysticks,
cars steered with levers, and cars steered with pedals. Each car
user would have had to choose a brand of car to learn to drive,
and it would not be easy to switch.
The expiration of the copyright would have freed manufacturers
to switch to the best of the known interfaces. But if Ford cars
were steered with wheels and General Motors were steered with
pedals, neither company could change interface without abandoning
their old customers. It would take decades to converge on a
Reason #6: Users invest more than developers
The plaintiffs like to claim that user interfaces represent
large investments on their part.
In fact, the effort spent designing the user interface of a
computer program is usually small compared to the cost of
developing the program itself. The people who make a large
investment in the user interface are the users who train to use
it. Users have spent much more time and money learning to use 1-
2-3 than Lotus spent developing the entire program, let alone
what Lotus spent develop the program's interface per se.
Thus, if investment justifies ownership, it is the users who
should be the owners. The users should be allowed to decide - -
in the marketplace - -who may use it. According to "Infoworld"
(mid January 1989), computer users in general expect user
interface copyright to be harmful.
Reason #7: Discrimation against software sharing
User interface copyright discriminates against freely
redistributable software, such as freeware, shareware and public
Although it may be possible to license an interface for a
proprietary program, if the owner is willing, these licenses
require payment, usually per copy. There is no way to collect
this payment for a freely redistributable program. The result
will be a growing body of interfaces that are barred to non-
Authors of these programs donate to the public the right to
share them, and sometimes also to study and change their
workings. This is a public service, and one less common than
innovation. It does not make sense to encourage innovation of
one sort with means that bar donation of another sort.
Reason #8: Copyright will be a tool for extortion
The scope of interface copyright is so vague and potentially
wide that it will be difficult for any programmer to be sure of
being safe from lawsuits. Most programs need an interface, and
there is usually no way to design an interface except based on
the ideas you have seen used elsewhere. Only a great genius
would be likely to envision a usable interface without a deep
resemblance to current practice. It follows that most
programming projects will risk an interface infringement suit.
The spirit of "Millions for defense, but not a cent for tribute"
is little honored in business today. Customers and investors
often avoid companies that are targets of suits; an eventual
victory may come years too late to prevent great loss or even
bankruptcy. Therefore, when offered a choice between paying
royalties and being sued, most businesses pay, even if they would
probably win a suit.
Since this tendency is well known, companies often take
advantage of it by filing or threatening suits they are unlikely
to win. As long as any interface copyright exists, this form of
extortion will broaden its effective scope.
Reason #9: Useful innovation is inhibited
Due to the evolutionary nature of interface development,
interface copyright will actually retard progress.
Fully fleshed-out interfaces don't often arise as tours de force
from the minds of isolated masters. They result from repeated
implementations, by different groups, each learning from the
results of previous attempts. For example, the Macintosh
interface was based on ideas tried previously by Xerox and SRI,
and before that by the Stanford Artificial Intelligence
Laboratory. The Xerox Star also drew on the interface ideas that
came from SRI and SAIL. 1-2-3 adapted the interface ideas of
Visicalc and other spreadsheets. dBase drew on a program
developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
This evolutionary process resembles the creation of folk art
rather than the way symphonies, novels or films are made. The
advances that we ought to encourage are most often small,
localized changes to what someone else has done. If each
interface has an owner, it will be difficult to implement such
ideas. Even assuming the owner will license the interface that
is to be improved, the inconvenience and expense would discourage
all but the most determined.
Users often appreciate small, incremental changes that make
programs easier or faster to use. This means changes that are
upwards compatible, or affect only part of a well-known
interface. Thus, on computer keyboards, we now have function
keys, arrow keys, a delete key and a control key, which
typewriters did not have. But the layout of the letters is
However, such partial changes as this are not permitted by
copyright law. If any significant portion of the new interface
is the same as a copyrighted interface, the new interface is
Reason #1: Interface developers don't want interface copyright
At the 1989 ACM Conference on Computer-Human Interaction,
Professor Samuelson of the Emory School of Law presented a "mock
trial" with legal arguments for and against user interface
copyright, and then asked the attendees - researchers and
developers of user interfaces - to fill out a survey of their
opinion on the subject.
The respondents overwhelmingly opposed all aspects of user
interface copyright, by as much as 4 to 1 for some aspects. When
they were asked whether user interface copyright would harm or
help the field, on a scale from 1 (harm) to 5 (help), the average
answer was 1.6 (See the May 1990 issue of the "Communications of
the ACM", for the full results).
The advocates of user interface copyright say that it would
provide better security and income for user interface designers.
However, the survey shows that these supposed beneficiaries would
prefer to be let alone.
Do you really want a user interface copyright?
For a business, "locking in" customers may be profitable for a
time. But, as the vendors of proprietary operating systems have
found out, this generates resentment and eventually drives
customers to try to escape. In the long run, this leads to
Therefore, by permitting user interface copyright, society
encourages counterproductive thinking in its businesses. Not all
businesses can resist this temptation; let us not tempt them.
Monopolies on user interfaces do not serve the users and do not
"promote the progress of science and the useful arts." User
interfaces ought to be the common property of all, as they
undisputedly were until a few years ago.
What you can do
o Don't do business as usual with the plaintiffs, Xerox,
Lotus, and Apple. Buy from their competitors instead; sell
their stock; develop new software for other computer systems
rather than theirs, and port existing applications away from
o Don't work for the "look and feel" plaintiffs or accept
contracts from them.
o Join the League for Programming Freedom - -a grass-roots
organization of programmers and users opposing software
patents and interface copyrights. (The League is not
opposed to copyright on individual programs.) Annual dues
are $42 for employed professionals, $10.50 for students, and
$21 for others. We appreciate activists, but members who
cannot contribute their time are also welcome.
o Give copies of this paper to your friends, colleagues and
o The European Community has adopted a directive whose most
natural interpretation imposes copyright on all kinds of
interfaces, even on programming languages. Since the other
countries of Europe are considering joining the EC, they
also are in danger of being covered by the directive.
Other, benign interpretations of the directive are also
possible, but they are unlikely to be chosen by judges
unless the governments of the individual EC countries
explicitly mandate them. Convincing the governments
requires political pressure from the programmers and users
Lobbyists working on this issue say that most legislators
are unfamiliar with computers and do not understand how
harmful interface copyright could be. Thus, what
programmers need to do is to educate their legislators.
Political effectiveness requires organization. Leagues for
Programming Freedom now exist in Finland, Germany, the
United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland.
(In the UK, the Edinburgh Computing and Social
Responsibility organization also deals with this issue.)
Ask the League in the US for the address of your nation's
League - or for advice and assistance in forming one.
The text of the articles is identical to the originals like they appeared in old ST NEWS issues. Please take into consideration that the author(s) was (were) a lot younger and less responsible back then. So bad jokes, bad English, youthful arrogance, insults, bravura, over-crediting and tastelessness should be taken with at least a grain of salt. Any contact and/or payment information, as well as deadlines/release dates of any kind should be regarded as outdated. Due to the fact that these pages are not actually contained in an Atari executable here, references to scroll texts, featured demo screens and hidden articles may also be irrelevant.