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I've been unable to find an answer to this even after doing extensive searching and I'm pretty good at searching if I do say so myself.

Does US copyright apply to software source code which has been authored (created) prior 1980? If somebody wrote a program in 1963 that was not subsequently modified does US copyright protection apply to that program in 2022?

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    Out of interest, what software from pre-1980 could you possibly be interested in?
    – Kovy Jacob
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:09
  • @KovyJacob IBM developed SABRE for American Airlines, a complex real-time booking system, in the late 1950s. It replaced the previous semi-automated system in 1964. It was maintained at least until 1976 exclusively for American Airlines, when it was opened for other travel agencies. The code and expertise were subsequently marketed by IBM to other air travel conductors in the late 60s and sold as PARS starting 1986 (later ACP and now TPF) to whoever wanted. The code was written in assembly first, and later in SabreTalk, a language exclusive to the IBM s/360, before going to C/C++.
    – Trish
    Feb 20, 2022 at 17:37
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    @KovyJacob The true precursor to UNIX, CTSS. Dennis Ritchie wrote a conference paper that includes a statement that UNIX was "a modern implementation of CTSS". He didn't write that UNIX was an implementation of Multics. Feb 20, 2022 at 18:56

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There was no copyright on software prior to 1980:

CONTU, or the Commission on New Technological Uses of Copyrighted Works, was created to study issues associated with copyrighted works in computers and computer-related works. It was established in 1974 by the 93rd United States Congress for a period of three years as part of an effort to revise U.S. copyright law. The commission presented its final report on 31 July 1978. It recommended that computer programs be explicitly protected by copyright law. Its recommendations were largely implemented in the Computer Software Copyright Act of 1980 that became effective on December 12. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CONTU

If copyright protection for software was not explicitly outlined in law in 1963 or before 1963, there may have been implicit protection, (as noted in comments below):

"...continued availability of copyright protection for computer programs... the Copyright Office presently accepts computer programs for registration." http://digital-law-online.info/CONTU/PDF/

Ownership is not the same copyright; a business or person who wrote software in 1963 can claim ownership (the state of having complete legal control of the status of something) and be able to sell or rent it, but they couldn't claim copyright (right by law to be the entity which determines who may publish, copy and distribute) or copyright infringement by someone.

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    I updated my question to be more specific based on your answer "didn't exist at that time". I changed "does US copyright protection apply to that program" to read "does US copyright protection apply to that program in 2022". My question is really about whether the copyright established in 1980 is applied retroactively to software written in 1963. I'm not concerned about ownership. Feb 20, 2022 at 18:48
  • Laws are generally not retroactive; the 1980 act does not state that copyright will be retroactive. Feb 20, 2022 at 19:14
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    The change is 1980 was to make software “explicitly” subject to copyright; rather than the implicit cover it already had as a literary work.
    – Dale M
    Feb 20, 2022 at 20:55
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    To restate @DaleM's comment a bit more, um, explicitly, this doesn't follow: "If copyright protection for software was not explicitly outlined in law in 1963 or before 1963, then copyright protection didn't exist at that time." There could have been implicit protection. Indeed, in chapter 3 of its report, CONTU speaks of "continued availability of copyright protection for computer programs" and notes, "the Copyright Office presently accepts computer programs for registration." So it seems that implicit protection was in fact recognized.
    – phoog
    Feb 21, 2022 at 9:16
  • DaleM and phoog, good point; answer edited. Feb 21, 2022 at 17:37

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