Softel, Inc. v. Dragon Medical and Scientific Communications, Inc.
118 F.3d 955 (2d Cir. 1997)

  • Softel owned a copyright on some video imaging software. They provided the software to Dragon, but eventually the deal ended.
  • Dragon retrieved deleted files Softel had left on their Dragon's computers and used them to make their own version of Softel's software. Softel sued for copyright infringement.
    • Basically, the software was made up of a bunch of different software 'modules' or 'design elements' that each performed a function (kinda like subroutines). Dragon used four of Softel's modules.
    • Dragon argued that each of the modules performed a pretty basic function, and since Softel couldn't claim a copyright on any individual basic function, they couldn't claim that Dragon was infringing.
  • The Trial Court found for Dragon. Softel appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that while Softel had a copyright on the overall program, each module, taken individually, was not copyrightable.
  • The Appellate Court reversed.
    • The Appellate Court looked to Computer Associates Int'l, Inc. v. Altai, Inc. (982 F.2d 693 (2d Cir. 1992)) and noted that non-literal similarity of computer programs can constitute copyright infringement.
    • The Court found that individual elements of a computer program that are filtered out at one level might be copyrightable when viewed as part of an aggregate of elements at another level of abstraction.
      • The Court compared this to a play by the Greek poet Homer. Each individual word in the play wasn't independently copyrightable, but put together they created a copyrightable work.
  • So basically, even if all the various features of a computer program are not individually protectable elements, it could be that the choice of arrangement and selection could create some level of copyright protection, similar to how a compilation can have copyright protection.
    • See Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., Inc. (499 U.S. 340 (1991)).