Peeling the Software Onion Can Cause Tears
Software can have lots of layers like an onion which can be trouble for an infringement lawsuit. In CSS, Inc. v. Herrington, CSS complained that the defendants infringed on three of its copyrighted software programs. The programs were made up of a lot of different components, including third party software and abstract ideas. The court’s opinion peeled the layers of CSS’s software onions to get to the decision. First, the court peeled off the function that each program performed because they were "ideas" of the programs and not their expression. Then the court peeled away the client/server architecture used by each of the programs because that was non-copyrightable industry-standard. Next came the third party components because they didn’t belong to either party. Next came the arrangement of the third party components didn’t have enough creativity for copyright protection. Then the court peeled away the layer that was the name/address algorithm because it was unoriginal and not copyrightable. Once the court got to the small onion core of protectable software that was left, the court held that CSS didn’t prove substantially similarity between CSS’s onion core and the defendants’ onion core. CSS may have had something that was protectable, but after peeling away the uncopyrightable components of its software it couldn’t prove infringement.
WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS. This opinion is a good road map for any pre-litigation due diligence involving software copyright infringement.