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Computer companies stretch the meaning of copyright protection

That little ad that a few MIT professors took out in The Tech on April 14 has raised a lot of interest in the computer industry. As head engineer of Mosaic Software, I was the original author of the TWIN -- the first Lotus-compatible spreadsheet, and the object of Lotus' lawsuit against Mosaic. I say bravo to Marvin Minsky, Richard Stallman, and Gerald Sussman for having the guts to say what most of us are too afraid to suggest.

Lotus and Apple are stretching the commonly understood meaning of copyright protection to encompass user interfaces. Other companies like Ashton Tate are even claiming exclusive rights to computer languages and file formats which have become widely used industry standards. Believe it or not, Xerox owns a design patent on wastebasket icons (not to be confused with trash cans).

Lotus complains that TWIN copies their interface and macro language command for command. But programs which emulate the complete command sets of others are the backbone of the computer industry. Without compatibility and open standards, there would be no PC software industry.

Copyrights only apply to expression of ideas, not ideas themselves, and certainly not functional things like file formats. But programming interfaces do not really say anything. In fact, it is the programmer, not the interface that says anything.

Menu keywords and the trash can icons have as much in common with creative literature as the rewind key on your tape player, the tuning knob on a radio, or the little "sun" icon that some cars use to label the headlight switch.

Imagine how mathematics would have advanced if everyone copyrighted the part that he or she invented? Nearly every programming language since FORTRAN uses the words "return," "goto," "end," and "for" exactly the same way. But not if the lawyers get their way. If Macintosh owns "Quit," and Microsoft owns "Exit," only a few companies could snatch up the few other synonyms, and before long, the entire English language, and every possible icon, would be owned by a dozen companies.

What's the point of standard interfaces if companies make them proprietary anyway? The whole point is to eliminate having to switch gears between your Macintosh, PC, and workstation. It is technically possible, but the lawyers may not allow it.

Open standards are what make the commercial success of the computer industry possible. If you value your jobs, and the future, take a stand on this issue and make your voices known.

Arthur Hu '80->