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Synercom v. Universal Computing

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Citation Edit

Synercom Technology, Inc. v. Universal Computing Co., 462 F. Supp. 1003, 199 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 537 (N.D. Tex. 1978) (full-text), later opinion, 474 F. Supp. 37, 204 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 29 (N.D. Tex. 1979) (full-text).

Factual Background Edit

Synercom brought suit against Universal Computing ("UCC") and Engineering Dynamics, Inc. (“EDI”) for copyright infringement and unfair competition. Synercom is an engineering consulting firm specializing in computerized structural analysis. UCC is a computer company that charges users for computer time, remitting part of its charges to the software owner as a royalty for the use of the program. EDI is an engineering firm competing with Synercom.

Synercom claimed that UCC and EDI infringed its copyrights on the instruction manuals and input formats used with a computer program designed to solve engineering problems in structural analysis.

Synercom had developed a computer program for structural analysis called STRAN. This program was one of the more competitive of several hundred structural analysis programs on the market. The STRAN program and the various versions of the instructional manuals were protected by copyright.

EDI developed a structural analysis program, SACS II, to compete with STRAN. EDI knew that for SACS II to be successful in the marketplace, it must be wholly compatible with STRAN, i.e., it must allow STRAN users to switch to SACS II with a minimum of training and without any loss of the data accumulated in scores of keypunched cards. EDI had obtained a copy of the user’s brochure for STRAN and incorporated details of STRAN’s input cards and instructions in their SACS II programming manual.

By the time EDI entered the market with SACS II, the relationship between Synercom and UCC had deteriorated and UCC had sought out EDI, anticipating that Synercom would not renew their existing license agreement. A new partnership was formed, with UCC and EDI offering SACS II to customers. The SACS II instruction manual distributed by EDI contained exact images of some of the input cards and instructions of STRAN, thereby enabling a customer to use the STRAN input format with SACS II.

District Court Proceedings Edit

The district court ruled that Synercom’s copyright registrations were valid for the three editions of the instruction manual. Though the court found that the manuals were infringed by UCC and EDI, the court held that the formats of the data entry cards were not copyrightable and thus not infringed, because EDI had appropriated only Synercom’s ideas, and not the expression of the format.

The court reasoned that although it would be “infringement to translate a computer program from, for example, FORTRAN to ALGOL, as it is to translate a novel or play from English to French,” the “preparation of a computer program in any language from a general description of the problem to be solved . . . is very dissimilar to the translation of a literary work, or to the translation of a program from one language to another.”[1]

The court thus found that EDI’s preparation of a FORTRAN preprocessor program from the descriptions contained in the Synercom manuals did not constitute infringement.

Later Proceedings Edit

In a later opinion on the unfair competition claims,[2] the court held that (1) the application of the Texas state law doctrine of misappropriation to limit the defendants’ use of plaintiff's input format would conflict with federal patent and copyright laws and, therefore, the misappropriation doctrine was preempted; (2) plaintiff had no claim for unfair competition based on breach of confidence; and (3) since the court had already granted the plaintiff relief on its claim for copyright infringement, further relief for the same conduct under the theory of unfair competition was unwarranted.

ReferencesEdit

  1. 462 F. Supp. at 1013 n.5, 199 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) at 546.
  2. 474 F. Supp. 37, 204 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 29 (N.D. Tex. 1979).

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