The United States Copyright Office defines a computer program as a set of statements or instructions to be used directly or indirectly in a computer in order to bring about a certain result. The question becomes what exactly does a copyright registration for a computer program protect? Courts have held that copyright protection extends not only to the literal elements of a computer program, such as source code and object code, but also to the program’s non-literal elements. These non-literal elements are the products generated by the codes interaction with the computer hardware and operating programs. Put another way, copyright protection of a computer program extends to the structure, sequence, organization, user-interface, screen displays, and menu structures. Therefore, a copyright registration will protect not only the code but also the output of that code.
It is important to recognize that specific filing requirements exist for a computer program. The requirements for the deposit to the copyright office, such as the code, must be followed in order to ensure protection of the computer program. In addition, specific claims to screen displays may be asserted on a copyright application, therefore requiring inclusion of such materials as a deposit with the copyright application.
Ultimately, to prevail on a copyright infringement claim one must demonstrate both ownership of a valid copyright as well as copying of constituent elements of the work that are original. Therefore, a certificate of copyright registration will constitute prima facie evidence of copyright validity and ownership so as to shift the burden to the defendant to demonstrate why the copyright is not valid. Again, this benefit, without minimizing the importance of having a copyright registration in order to be in federal court for copyright infringement, makes filing worthwhile. Assuming access and actual copying can be shown, having a copyright registration for a computer program is critical.
As always, copyright protection extends to only the copyrightable expression of the computer program. Copyright protection is not available for ideas, program logic, algorithms, systems, methods, concepts, or layouts. Therefore, you should consult a copyright attorney in order to determine whether or not your computer program is entitled to copyright registration and protection.