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Apple 1, Microsoft 0

Apple has won round one of the lawsuit between Apple and Microsoft (and HP, to be technically correct). In a decision last week, Judge Vaughn Walker of the U.S. District Court in San Francisco ruled that Apple did indeed create the portions of the Macintosh interface in question, most notably overlapping windows and icons. Judge Walker denied motions by Microsoft and HP to throw out the case on the grounds that Apple "borrowed" (my quotes, not Apple’s, so keep the lawyers off) from the Xerox Star and/or SmallTalk. For those of you who haven’t been following this case closely, it started in March of 1988 (yup, that long ago, and they’ve just decided that they might go ahead and have a trial) when Apple filed suit against Microsoft for Windows 2.03 and HP for New Wave (an interface that runs on top of Windows). Apple claims that these products violate both an earlier agreement with Microsoft and Apple’s copyrighted audio-visual displays. This is only round one, though, since the decision did not determine whether or not Microsoft and HP infringed on Apple’s copyright. The press release said that they were going to have a "status conference" to determine the schedule for the rest of the case. Sheesh, no wonder it takes so long.

What’s the practical impact of all this? For the moment, nothing. However, it looks good for Apple and bad for Microsoft currently, so let’s assume that Apple will win this suit sometime in the next century. Gather ’round, boys and girls, it’s speculation time! (and remember, my degree is in Classics and Hypertextual Fiction, not Copyright Law)

I haven’t heard what sort of damages Apple wants, or even if that was specified in the original suit. (Remember, this was in 1988, while I was still worrying about the proper form of Greek verbs in the aorist imperative at Cornell.) I don’t believe that Apple has any control over the existing copies of Windows, so there’s no way that Apple could extract royalties from existing users (as some people on Usenet were worrying) or have all copies of Windows destroyed or anything so irritatingly totalitarian. If Apple was that concerned, they could have pushed a hold through the court to prevent any more copies of Windows from being sold in 1988. It’s not inconceivable that Apple could get back royalties from Microsoft and HP, though, which would cost a lot of money even though Windows 2.03 and New Wave weren’t all that popular. That’s the most likely option, since money is the name of the game and licensing fees are a great way to make money without doing anything. Interestingly enough, I saw that AT&T has some sort of patent on a window manager for which it is trying to get licensing fees from a number of companies. No idea of which companies are involved, but that could thoroughly confuse the issue once more. Another unclear issue is the role of Windows 3.0 in all of this. I haven’t used it enough to notice how it works with overlapping windows (I believe you can overlap windows, but only within the parent window). Although the current suit is aimed solely at Windows 2.03, if Apple wins, I suspect that Windows 3.0 and later will be subject to the decision as well.

Overall, I don’t like what Apple is trying to do with this lawsuit. I understand Apple wanting to clear up the problem with the 1985 agreement with Microsoft about Windows 1.x not applying to Windows 2.x, but I’m afraid that Apple wants to take that relatively unimportant contract dispute and use it to claim that Apple alone owns the concept of many of the elements of a standard graphical interface. That’s slimy and does no one any good, other than increase Apple’s ego and coffers. My devious mind came up with one interesting possibility for why Apple won this initial round, though. This issue of being able to copyright elements of an interface must be resolved at some point, but it will require a court case. If the judge had granted Microsoft’s motion (that overlapping windows and icons were derivative works from Xerox), and dismissed the case, the issue would wait longer to resolve itself. So it’s possible (though I’m sure everyone in sight would deny it whether or not it was true) that the judge allowed the case to continue in order to get everything out in the open already.

There are two recent court decisions that are important in light of this case. First, Lotus won a case against Paperback Software, claiming that Paperback had infringed on Lotus’s copyright by using the same command structure. That’s bad. Then there is Ashton-Tate’s case against Fox Software, in which Ashton-Tate claimed that FoxBASE+ violated Ashton-Tate’s copyright by using the same internal programming language (so you could run dBASE programs in FoxBASE+ and vice versa). The judge ruled that Ashton-Tate’s copyrights were invalid because the company implied that dBASE was an original work, whereas the court ruled that it was derived from an earlier database created at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That’s good. These cases both apply, though it would seem that the Ashton-Tate case would be more applicable, because Apple did not completely invent the concept of a windowing environment with icons. I hope that when the legal dust dies down everyone is free to innovate without fear of the legal daemons.

Information from:
Mark H. Anbinder — [email protected]
John H. Kim — [email protected]
Bryon S. Lape — [email protected]
Loel Larzelere — [email protected]
Bob Geer — [email protected]
Peter Lim — [email protected]
Jeff Sicherman — [email protected]
Lloyd Lim — [email protected]
Arthur Ogawa — [email protected]
Tim Endres — [email protected]
Steven M. List — [email protected]
Christopher Gaeth — [email protected]

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