Loading... Please wait...

Harvard Law School | The Case Studies Logo

Lotus v. Borland: A Case Study in Software Copyright

 Ben Sobel, under the supervision of Jonathan Zittrain  
Product number:
27 pages
Product Type:
Workshop-Based Case Study
Link to Faculty Author Page:

Please note that each purchase of this product entitles the purchaser to one download and use. If you need multiple copies, please purchase the number of copies you need. For more information, see Copying Your Case Study.


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

For hard copies, please contact the HLS Case Studies Program at hlscasestudies@law.harvard.edu or +1-617-496-1316. When ordering, please let us know how many copies of confidential materials that you will need.


To obtain accessible versions of our products for use by those with disabilities, please contact the HLS Case Studies Program at hlscasestudies@law.harvard.edu or +1-617-496-1316.

Educator Materials

Registered members of this website can download this product at no cost. Please create an account or sign in to gain access to these materials. 

Note: It can take up to three business days after you create an account to verify educator access. Verification will be confirmed via email. 

For more information about the Problem Solving Workshop, or to request a teaching note for this case study, contact the Case Studies Program at hlscasestudies@law.harvard.edu or +1-617-496-1316.


Registered User?

Sign in now

Not a User?

Create an account

Instructors can apply for Educator Access. Benefits include:
Benefits Include:

  • Educator Copies
  • Teaching Notes
  • Student Pricing

Contact us for more information.

Related case studies and educator materials