Lotus Beaters

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WASHINGTON: "This was the canonical 'look and feel' lawsuit," says TIME's Philip Elmer-DeWitt of Tuesday's Supreme Court ruling that denied copyright protection to the "menu command" portion of Lotus' 1-2-3 spreadsheet software. Voting without Justice John Paul Stevens, who earlier excused himself for undisclosed reasons, the court on a divided 4-4 vote upheld without comment a lower court ruling that Borland did not violate copyright laws when it incorporated an almost identical menu command bar into its own Quattro spreadsheet programs because the menu is a "method of operation" which does not qualify for copyright protection. "People in the computer industry see this ruling and think that judges don't understand the industry if a lawyer can convince them this isn't an infringement," says Elmer-DeWitt. "This was a case of outright copying. Borland took the look and feel of the Lotus program, incorporated it into their competing Quattro Pro program, and sold it for a lower price." Although the case had been watched closely by the computer industry and copyright lawyers expecting a landmark ruling on how copyright law may be used to protect computer software features, the question remains largely unresolved, because the court did not issue an opinion explaining its thinking.