Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – copyrightable authorship in a computer program

A computer program may be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office if it contains a sufficient amount of original authorship in the form of statements or instructions to a computer.

As a general rule, the Office does not distinguish between executable code and nonexecuting comments or data that may appear in the source code for a computer program. Either element may support a claim to copyright if the program contains a sufficient amount of original statements or instructions, and both elements may be registered with the same application.

The copyright in a computer program does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in the program. As such, the Office will not register the functional aspects of a computer program, such as the program’s algorithm, formatting, functions, logic, system design, or the like. Likewise, the Office will communicate with the applicant and may refuse registration if the applicant asserts a claim in uncopyrightable elements that may be generated by a computer program, such as menu screens, layout and format, or the like.

A derivative computer program may be registered if it contains new material that is sufficiently different from the preexisting work such that the program qualifies as an original work of authorship. The new material must be original and it must contain a sufficient amount of copyrightable authorship. Making only a few minor changes or revisions to a preexisting work, or making changes or revisions of a rote nature that are predetermined by the functional considerations of the hardware does not satisfy this requirement. In no case does the copyright for a derivative computer program extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in the program.

Each version of a computer program that contains new, copyrightable authorship is considered a separate work. A registration (draft) for a specific version of a computer program covers the new material that the author contributed to that version, including any changes, revisions, additions, or other modifications that the author made to that version. However, a registration for a specific version of a computer program does not cover any unclaimable material that may appear in that version.

If the deposit contains multiple dates or multiple version/release numbers, the applicant should notify the registration specialist if those dates or numbers refer to the development history of the program or if they refer to previous versions of the program that have not been published or registered before.

If the program contains only a minimal amount of unclaimable material or if the program contains material that is uncopyrightable, there is no need to exclude that material from the application. Unclaimable material should be excluded only if that material is copyrightable and represents an appreciable portion of the work.