February 08, 2004

The Lotus 1-2-3 position

These three legal cases might not appear to have much in common except the connection to copyright and California:

  • Lotus sues Borland over a Borland product, Quattro Pro, that was designed to look and feel like Lotus 1-2-3 so users could readily switch. (Case finally won by Borland in 1996 when the US Supreme Court deadlocked on it -- Justice Stevens recused himself -- and thus let an earlier judgment of the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals stand.)

  • SCO sues IBM alleging that Unix-derived code to which SCO owns the rights is present in Linux code. (Case filed but not yet heard.)

  • Yoga guru Bikram Choudhury throws cease-and-desist letters around at San Francisco Bay area yoga schools who are (he alleges) teaching his conception of yoga.

But they are actually all about drawing the line between languages and the things uttered in them -- how to tell the dancer from the dance.

Borland, a relatively small Santa Cruz County software company (rah!) was sued by the big Lotus corporation (boo! hiss!) for using in the Quattro Pro spreadsheet product a set of menus with the same commands in the same order as Lotus 1-2-3 menus. Lotus was claiming in effect that they could copyright a (partially visual) language of screen boxes and command lists and command names etc. (See this essay for a nice discussion of some issues involved in lawsuits about copyrighting of software.) Copyright a program or a script or a package of macros, sure, but not window borders or color schemes or the notion of having Quit on the Quit button.

The SCO case is different in that SCO sued IBM for something that would be a valid cause for complaint if it were true. They claim ownership of key bits of code that turn up in the open-source Linux operating system (installed on some IBM machines). SCO purchased the rights to the proprietary Unix code developed decades ago by AT&T. Here the claim is in principle a reasonable one: use the same programming language that I write in, by all means, but if I write a clever function that does some key trick in the operating system, I own the piece of code expressing it and you can't plagiarize it or give it away to your friends. Use the same programming language to devise your own way of doing exactly the same task, sure, but don't steal my code.

So what's got everyone so mad at SCO (mad enough that some think it might have been renegade Linux militants who released the W32/Mydoom@MM virus with its payload of SCO-targeted service-denial anthrax) is not that copying code isn't a copyright infringement, but that the Linuxites suspect the SCO suit is just harassment -- SCO can't prove its complaint, the Linuxites believe, but can cause trouble, and is hoping to be bought off, or purchased outright. Linux programmers are well aware that parts of Unix are proprietary. They don't normally have access to those parts anyway, but where the content of any of the source code does become known, Linux programmers always rewrite it in a different way. What they're after is the same input/output behavior as classic Unix -- the file copying program is called cp, it does interactive prompting if you call it with the -i option, it takes either two file names or an arbitrary list of file names and a directory name, etc. -- but that isn't copyrightable (that would take us back to the Lotus case). So Linux enthusiasts think SCO is just bluffing, and have dared the company to publicly reveal which pieces of code it thinks have been plagiarized.

Finally, Bikram Choudhury says he has taken a select 26 postures from the classical 84 of traditional Indian yoga and knitted them, with accompanying script, into a carefully designed exercise session that constitutes something he can claim rights to (San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, February 5, 2004, front page and page 10, or online in Salon magazine's story by Nora Isaacs). He claims that no one else should be allowed to teach that series of 26 positions in just the way he does, and has his lawyers fire cease-and-desist letters at anyone who gets too close to doing his thing.

As I read the law, he could well find the courts ruling in his favor. What he has done could readily be represented as a lot like composing a poem or choreographing a ballet or writing a program. It's not look-and-feel -- anyone is entitled to teach yoga in their own way according to the ancient Indian tradition. And it hasn't got the uncheckability of the SCO case. SCO's claim that ripped-off proprietary Unix secrets that they won't name are buried in plain sight in openly available Linux code, but they won't tell you what or where, seems utterly inscrutable. But it should be straightforwardly checkable whether a yoga studio is doing the Choudhury program according to the Choudhury script. He's not taking the Lotus position, because he's not trying to copyright the lotus position.

[Thanks to Ari Kahan (UCSC linguistics B.A. and UCLA law graduate, now an intellectual property lawyer) for advice and corrections.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 8, 2004 06:22 PM