Compendium of U.S. Copyright Practices, 3rd Edition

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721.1 What Is a Computer Program?

721.1 What Is a Computer Program?

The Copyright Act 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.” 17 U.S.C. § 101. Congress added this definition to the statute “to make it explicit that computer programs, to the extent that they embody an author’s original creation, are proper subject matter of copyright.” NATIONAL COMMISSION ON NEW TECHNOLOGICAL USES OF COPYRIGHTED WORKS (“CONTU”), FINAL REPORT 1 (1979) (CONTU REPORT); see also 126

CONG. REC. 29,895 (1980) (statement of Rep. Kastenmeier) (explaining that the

legislation “eliminates confusion about the legal status of computer software by

enacting the recommendations of [CONTU] clarifying the law of computer software”).

A claim to copyright in a computer program may be based on the authorship “expressed in words, numbers, or other verbal or numerical symbols or indicia,” regardless of whether that expression has been fixed in tapes, disks, cards, or any other tangible medium of expression. 17 U.S.C. § 101 (definition of “literary works”). However, the fixed program must be used directly or indirectly in a computer. For purposes of copyright registration, a “computer” is defined as a programmable electronic device that can store, retrieve, and process data that is input by a user through a user interface, and is capable of providing output through a display screen or other external output device, such as a printer. “Computers” include mainframes, desktops, laptops, tablets, and smart phones.

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