Is this the end of the software clone?

Written by David Tebbutt, PC Dealer 11/86 item 01 - scanned

Oh dear, Oh dear. A judge in California has decided that the 'total concept and feel' of a software package can be copyrightable. Until now, you could only get nailed if you actually copied program code. This latest development means that the days of software clones could soon be at an end.

In this milestone case, Broderbund Software and Pixellite Software jointly claimed that Unison World's Printmaster package violated their copyright on The Print Shop. A friend of mine who has used both agrees that they are 'similar' even down to the weird graphics used, including Easter bunnies and birthday cakes. Hardly something which could happen by accident, is it?

I wonder how far 'concept and feel' goes? Digital Research must be thinking itself dead lucky to get off so lightly with its GEM clone of the Macintosh user interface. But how would a Lotus 1-2-3 clone fare? Will Adam Osborne get it in the neck for his VP-Planner? Will all the spreadsheet makers (including Lotus) suffer the wrath of Visicalc's original authors?

One legal chappie I spoke to reckons that things like spreadsheets can't help looking alike - it is a function of the product's purpose, presumably in the same way that cars can't help having a wheel in each corner. Okay, so how about word processors? Why should NewWord have to look exactly like WordStar? Was it simply a lack of imagination on the part of the authors? Or was it a deliberate marketing ploy? Whatever the reason, there's no doubt that the WordStar user interface was copied faithfully.

Now, a very peculiar thing happened while the Broderbund/Pixellite case was still in court. MicroPro, publisher of WordStar, decided to spend $3.11 million buying out NewStar, publisher of NewWord. MicroPro must have expected the legal action to fail, because surely the price of NewWord would have plummeted in the light of the actual court ruling.

When I rang to check, MicroPro told me that it knew all about the ruling before finalising the agreement with NewStar. But it so badly needed a WordStar upgrade, it saw this as a way of getting a feature-rich new version out quickly and at no risk. No risk, that is, apart from the $3.11 million, and the possibility that most people don't like the WordStar approach any more.

So what happens next? Will clone sellers and users suddenly find themselves with dead products? No more upgrades or bug fixes. (Did they ever get them anyway?) We'll almost certainly see more legal actions of this kind. Rich and prominent companies will be slogging it out in the courtrooms because only they offer the winner any chance of recovering damages.

Perhaps there will be a flurry of mergers as originators offer cloners the option of legal action or a bargain basement buy-out. Cloners who forgot to add features of their own are in dead trouble, they won't even have the luxury of a choice. By the way, which clones will you be carrying in 1987?