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
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
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
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)).