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The Case for Software Versions, Registrations and Record-Keeping

A recent case from the First Circuit underlines the utility, from a copyright perspective, of delineating versions of software, registering each version, and keeping copies. That is not always so easily done, because unlike other copyrightable works, such as a novel, software is never done. There is always another bug to fix, feature to add or compatibility issue to address. But to effectively employ copyright protection, it is a necessity.

The concern is proof. In order to prove infringement, the copyright owner must first prove what it is that is copyrighted, and that a copyrighted work was registered. That is generally simple enough, but with an evolving work, such as software, it becomes less so. That was the case in Airframe Systems v. L-3 Communications. In that case, Airframe accused L-3 of unauthorized copying of its software between 1997 and 2003.

The court’s opinion reports that Airframe had some pretty damning evidence, particularly a comment in the L-3 code that said “I do not know what this code is used for so I will leave it here anyway.” The problem was, Airframe did not have a copy of the software as it existed in those years and hadn’t registered a version during those years. Airframe attempted to prove infringement by comparing the L-3 code to an updated version of the Airframe software from 2009. The court held that without a copyright registration for the software as it existed during the years in question, and without a way of proving exactly which portions of the 2009 code were present in the version L-3 was accused of copying, Airframe could not prove infringement. The opinion reviews a number of cases in which copyright claims failed because of the plaintiff’s inability to prove the contents of the work allegedly infringed, and discuss the applicability of the best evidence rule in this context.

It seems that Airframe may not have registered any version of its software between 1988 and 2003. That is too long. Software developers and makers of other evolving works should anticipate the need to prove the state of their products at different times and register snapshots that will enable them to prevail when infringements come to light.

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