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I want to create a program, to be specific, it's an IDE (Integrated Development Environment i.e.: a program that people can use to create programs, write code etc...) The features I want to implement, are standard for any program classified as "IDE". Given that there are may IDE's around and that they all pretty much do the same thing and have very similar interfaces, I'm sure that the functionality alone cannot be copyrightable.

I love the way Microsoft's Visual Studio IDE looks and feels. I'm referring to Visual Studio Desktop (not Visual Studio Code). I would like my program to look and feel the same, if not identically, at least very close. My program would have nothing in common with Microsoft's product except for how it visually looks.

To be more precise, I'm interested in knowing if copying any of the following is permitted by copyright law :

  • Program layout : where various "sub panels or plugins or widgets" are positioned on screen.
  • Colors : specific shades of various colors and combinations there of, color palettes etc...
  • Fonts, however in this case, a user might obtain a font license for personal use, and configure the program to use that specific font, but it would be nice to integrate it.
  • Look and feel of various User Interface elements for example buttons are rectangles with text, an optional image, they have a specific width and height, a specific border size and color. Panels top bar have text on the far left, a specific fill pattern in the middle and on the right there is the "pin" button, and the "close widget/panel" button; the program editor / text editor visually highlights text with specific rectangles, and transparency patters.

The question is : How far can I go in copying the user interface before it becomes copyright infringement ?

I'm asking because I've seen around many programs that emulate Visual Studio's look and feel, when opening them, a normal user would struggle to tell the difference.

P.S.: I assume the answer is probably no, I can't copy everything and get away with it.

However, how much can be copied before it becomes copyright infringement ?

Related question : Given the nature of the program I want to create, and the fact that it can be configured i.e.: its look and feel as well as graphical behavior can be changed in the settings menu; Would creating a program with a different default look and feel that can be configured manually to look exactly the same as Visual Studio be allowed (in copyright terms) ?

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    This question raises the specific question of "look and feel" and to what extent that is protected by copyright. That issue is not raised by the linked question, nor is it addressed in the current answers. Thus this is not a duplicate. Aug 24 at 16:49
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    @bdb484 The answer helps, but it does not answer my question. I was aware of the 4 bullet points, I have heard of them in the past. My answers are : 1) Probably not, however I have no way of knowing that in advance. 2) Because I like the way it looks and feels. 3 and 4) The user interface. Aug 25 at 13:39
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    I mean, I think the short answer is that you're trying to make an IDE that "look and feel the same" as someone else's IDE. I don't see any argument for fair use here.
    – bdb484
    Aug 25 at 13:50
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Functionality in general is not protected by copyright, although it may in some cases be protected by a patent. As the question noted, there are many IDEs and creating another one generally similar to those is not a violation of anyone's IP rights.

The "look and feel" of a piece of software has been held by US courts to be protected by copyright.

Broderbund Software. Inc., v. Unison World, Inc., 648 F. Supp. 1127 (N.D. Cal. 1986), was a relativcly early case in which the visual display elements of a software program were held to be protected by copyright. In the decision it is said that;

On the “Choose a Font” screen, no mechanical or practical factor compelled [defendant] to use those exact words (“Choose a Font”). He could have written: “Select a Font,” or “Indicate a Typeface Preference,” or “Which Type Style Do You Prefer,” or any combination of these terms. . . .The bottom line is that the designer of any program that performed the same functions as “Print Shop” had available a wide range of expression governed predominantly by artistic and not utilitarian considerations.

Another relevant early case was Digital Communications Associates, Inc. v. Softklone Distributing Corp., 659 F.Supp. 449 (N.D. Ga. 1987). In this case, the Defendant "oftklone intentionally set out to "clone" or copy the functionality and interface of the popular program Crosstalk XVI (I was a user of thwt program many years ago). The court wrote:

In the instant case, however, the arrange- ment of the status screen involves consider- able stylistic creativity and authorship above and beyond the ideas embodied in the status screen. It cannot be said that the idea of the status screen, i.e., using two symbol commands to change the operations of the computer program and reflecting that fact on a screen listing the computer program’s parameters/commands with their operative values, could not have been expressed in a large variety of ways. The defendants have never contended that they could not have arranged the parameters/commands in a wide variety of patterns without hampering the operation of their program.

and found copyright infringement on that basis.

Section 310 of Copyrightable Authorship: What Can Be Registered by the US Copyright office, says:

The U.S. Copyright Office will not consider the so-called “look and feel” of a work. Invoking a work’s “feel” is not a viable substitute for an objective analysis of the work’s fixed and creative elements. See 4 MELVILLE & DAVID NIMMER, NIMMER ON Copyright § 13.03[A][1][c] (2013) (criticizing the use of “feel” as a “wholly amorphous referent” that “merely invites an abdication of analysis”).

The question asks:

How far can I go in copying the user interface before it becomes copyright infringement ?

There is no clear bright line on this matter. The more one copies interface elements and choices from a specific source, the stronger the case for infringement is. Using elements and choices that have become common industry practice in multiple works froim multiple developers and companies is probably safe. Clearly and extensively imitating the visual appearance and interface of a single specific work of software might well be infringement.

One would be wise to consult a lawyer with experience in copyright law, and specifically "look and feel" issues, beforign publishing such a work of software.

This issue is discussed extensively in Look And Feel In Computer Software (1993) by Jack Russo & Jamie Nafziger, published by Computerlaw Group LLP, which seems to be a law firm specializing in computer law.

The Law of Look and Feel by Peter Lee (Professor of Law and Chancellor’s Fellow, University of California, Davis.) & Madhavi Sunder (Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law, University of California, Davis.) is a 60-page law review article dealing with this topic. There is far more detail in these publications (and many others to be found on the net) than I can summarize in an SE answer.

Configurable Interfaces

The question asks whether the use of a configurable interface which could, but does not by default, imitate an existing interface would be infringement.

I have not been able to find any case on point, or any discussion in a reliable source of this issue. Therefore, I am going to speculate.

If there is a single choice between overall "themes" or "shells" and one of them imitates the interface from a protected program without permission, that would probably be legally the same as if the program shipped with that interface. It might or might not be infringement, depending on the details, as discussed above.

If there are many settings, but the program is shipped with instructions advising a combination of settings that imitate another interface (or the developer or distributor provides such advice to users), that would probably be legally the same as if the program shipped in that configuration. If the developer provides a few preset configuration files which control these interface settings, and one such file results in settings that imitate another interface, that would also probably be legally the same as if the program shipped in that configuration.

If there are many settings and there is no particular guidance or advice to a user on what combination to use, nor any predefined settings file, but users must discover (if they choose) a group of settings which imitate another interface, that is probably not infringement.

I repeat that this section of the answer is based on general principals, but not on specific case law, nor on specific legal scholarship, and a court faced with this issue might rule otherwise. Before implementing this as a business plan, one might be wise to consult a lawyer with IP expertise.

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  • Thank you, very concise. Before I accept the answer, I was interested in knowing the implications in allowing a user to configure the program so much so, that it looks identical to the original product from Microsoft. The IDE as it ships would have it's own User Interface, but trough user configuration, or an external (third party) configuration package, the program on a user's machine would end up looking exactly the same as the IDE from Microsoft. Aug 25 at 13:51
  • @Andrei Matei I have added a discussion of Configurable Interfaces to the answer. Aug 25 at 14:09

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