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Copyright and software

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ESA / About Us / Law at ESA / Intellectual Property Rights

Software is the term usually used to describe a set of programmes, procedures, rules and all associated documentation pertaining to the operation of a computerised system.

Usually it comes with instructions for its use and maintenance, particularly if the software is for space systems. It may also be related to the hardware on which it resides.

In general there are three basic types of software:

  • system software, also called operating system, is a set of programmes that manages all the concurrent tasks performed by a computer
  • utility software is a collection of programmes that perform routine tasks such as copying, compressing data, etc
  • application software performs specialised functions not directly related to the computer itself

These distinctions are important because a software is a creation that may qualify for both patent and copyright protection.

Copyright for computer programmes

Copyright is the most common method used to protect a software. A programmer automatically owns the copyright of any programme they write and there is no procedure to follow or fee to pay. However, it is advisable to certify the date of creation and name of the creator (i.e. name of the creator(c)and date of the creation).

Is double protection possible?

Both copyright and patent can be used to protect a software. Copyright may protect the programme as such, the programme’s literal expression and perhaps its structure, sequence and organisation. A patent may be issued on the programme’s innovative approach to solving a particular problem or producing a particular result in a computer-related invention.

Patent protection offers broader rights than copyright protection because a patent creates a monopoly over the ideas it covers, whereas copyright only protects the expression itself. Also, a copyright can not be claimed by independent creators, i.e. those who write a similar or even identical programme to one already existing without copying it from the copyrighted programme or using it as a basis for a later work.

It is much easier and less expensive to obtain copyright protection than patent protection. Plus, the more restricted copyright protection lasts longer than the greater protection granted by patents.

It is advisable to display the copyright notice on each software and to file for patent protection to cover an innovative computer-related invention.

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