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Lotus v. Borland: A Case Study in Software Copyright

By:
 Ben Sobel, under the supervision of Jonathan Zittrain  
Product number:
APSW16
Length:
27 pages
English:
PDF
Product Type:
Workshop-Based Case Study
Link to Faculty Author Page:
Published:
2015

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Abstract

In 1996, the Supreme Court heard a landmark case on software copyright. Lotus Development Corporation had sued Borland International, Inc. for copying the names and hierarchical structure of the menu commands in Lotus’s blockbuster spreadsheet program, 1-2-3, and offering them in Borland’s competing Quattro Pro software. However, the Supreme Court did not make binding precedent in Lotus v. Borland. One justice’s recusal left the remaining justices in a 4-4 tie, and so the Court let stand, without opinion, the First Circuit’s judgment that the names and hierarchical structure of the menu commands in Lotus 1-2-3 were uncopyrightable.

Nearly twenty years later, similar questions of software copyright remain unresolved. A high-profile case involving copyright in computer programs, Oracle v. Google, was denied review by the Supreme Court in late June of 2015. Google’s petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court maintained that Oracle v. Google “directly implicates the unanswered question in Lotus...” and its outcome will exert “enormous” influence over innovation in the computer business. Lotus v. Borland is an essential piece of context in the contemporary debate over digital intellectual property—a debate that has persisted for decades without definitive resolution by the Supreme Court. Studying the case can offer a practical immersion in legal doctrine, litigation procedure and tactics, policymaking, and business strategy.

This case study contextualizes Lotus v. Borland in order to analyze the issues of jurisprudence, policy, commerce, and legal practice that the case implicated. Students study internal government documents—made public during Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings—that give insight into the rarely seen debates that shape the government’s official position on pending litigation. By providing important legal and historical context, this case study challenges students to examine Lotus v. Borland’s influence on the contemporary software ecosystem.

This case study is based on the syllabus and pedagogy of “Anatomy of a Copyright Case,” a course taught at HLS in Spring 2015 by Henry Gutman, who argued Lotus’s side before the Supreme Court.

Learning Objectives

  • Discuss software copyright from legal, commercial, and policy perspectives.
  • Understand legal and business strategies in copyright litigation.
  • Practice argumentation and brief-writing in a variety of legal, governmental, and commercial roles.

Subjects Covered

 Copyright, Legislation and Regulation, Intellectual Property, Legal Writing

Hard Copy

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