Can You Obtain Copyright Protection for Your Software’s Graphical User Interface (GUI)?

May 28, 2010

I think there are some useful nuggets for any expansion stage company or company looking for investors, even though this is a complex legal issue.

Most software companies realize that they can obtain copyright protection for their source code, but what about their GUI? Well it depends (as any good lawyer would say). 

The BASICS of Copyright Law in Relation to GUIs 
1) Expressions are Protected, but Not Ideas. The ideas contained in a GUI layout will not receive copyright protection, but if there is a unique expression of an idea then there may be some protection. 

2) An ‘Artistic’ Layout Should Receive Protection, but ‘Features’ Won’t.  If there is only one way to express an idea (say a drop down menu list with Save and Print), then that drop down menu will likely not receive copyright protection. However, if the drop down menu can be expressed in a more artistic manner, then copyright protection could attach. This is a hot legal issue, and a February 2010 Federal court just ruled in a copyright GUI case that the artisticand original nature of a CAD software’s GUI design (look of the icons, layout of the toolbar, etc.) provided copyright protection.

Microsoft Office’s New Ribbon. Haven’t you wondered why Microsoft made that dramatic change to Word, Excel, etc. to the new ribbon layout in Office 2007? I did, and I think that part of the decision (I am sure that usability had a lot to do with it) to redesign the layout of the Office 2007 GUI had to do with the fact that Microsoft wanted to differentiate its product from its open source and free competitors (Open Office, Google Docs, etc.), and it could use copyright law to help. Isn’t the new ribbon layout pretty artistic and original? I think so. 

Key Take-Aways to Protect Your Software’s GUI 
1) The more original and artistic the layout, design, icons, etc…. the more likely you will be able to obtain copyright protection and prevent a competitor from simply copying your GUI. 

2) Don’t Forget to Register your Copyright Early?This can make all the difference if you want to enforce your rights. It is easy, inexpensive and relatively quick. Here is my prior blog on the 4 Reasons to Register your Software for Copyright Protection

3) If Microsoft is doing this, why aren’t you thinking about it? Take a look at the new ribbon in Microsoft Office. Is usability the only reason for the change? The ribbon sure looks original and artistic to me, so maybe copyright law had something to do with it.

Every company looking for venture funding should think about this and talk to their copyright attorney (at least before their competitors copy their GUI).

: This issue is quite frankly one of the most complex and difficult software copyright issues out there, so talk to your copyright lawyer about this before you make any changes. 


President and Shareholder

<strong>Jeremy Aber</strong> consults OpenView portfolio companies on legal and contract matters. Jeremy runs his own IT focused law firm, the <a href="">Aber Law Firm</a>, and has over 18 years experience in technology and corporate law.