I created a program that was built on a Windows Form Application. An employer completely copied the design and functionality of the program and re-created it on a website. The website is identical to the Windows Form Application. I don't believe the source code was copied, but I have no access to it, other then inspecting the page element. The only thing I have is pictures of the web application they created and my application. Would this even be considered a copyright infringement? I know a big part of copyright infringement is the source code, but what if the source code wasn't copied. They just had access to the application and just re-created it exactly the same (design & functionality) without my permission?

  • "An employer": was it your employer?
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 17:10

2 Answers 2


pure functionality is not copyrightable

Copyright does not protect purely functional things, it only can protect the execution as Brown Bag Software v Symantec Corp established back in 1992. In fact, even before that, Data East v Epyx established in 1988 that it takes the availability of the software to be copied to even get a case, but that was refined in Capcom v Data East in 1994: There are unprotectable elements, aka Scenes a Faire, things that are just standard and have to be done.

A lever that pulls on a rope is strictly functional, that the lever is pink with orange stripes is not. A button with the label "save" on it has no artistic choice but a purely functional one and its presence, in general, can't be copyrighted as that is standard. Even standard placements like "top left corner" or "bottom right corner" for the button are just standard enough and make that part of the UI uncopyrightable. Indeed, even the idea of a Graphic User Interface is unprotectable as Apple v Microsoft (1994) held.

But if you put that save button upside down on the left edge of the screen and only visible if you mouse over it, then you have shown artistic choice beyond the mere functionality - but also very bad UI/UX design.

Code can be copyrighted.

Computer code can be copyright protected, but you protect only those elements that are protectable in the first place. This means only elements that are not for example mandated by the sheer functionality of the underlying programming language. If the programming language mandates that all programs start with

Program launch {variable variable variables}

then that part is not copyrighted by you, but your choice of variable names can be.

Code can be made from functionality requirements

There was a famous SCOTUS case that had pretty much this question: Can a company dissect a software and then take the determined functionality of the whole software to their own programming team?

Bowers v Baystate court held an Ethical Wall will not constitute infringement, if properly executed and the EULA doesn't prohibit it.

Work for hire/Employees

Now employers always get pretty much all the rights to a program's code anyway. If you are contracted from the outside, it might be work-for-hire and the contract might include such a transfer. In either case, there are no rights left for the hired person to sue over.

Only if the contracted outside coder does not have a work-for-hire type work and there is no transfer clause, they do have rights in the work that they can sue over at all.

But Work For Hire is a very complex topic on its own - and requires you to review your contracts and get a lawyer.

  • 1
    This somewhat oversimplifies the work-for-hire (wfh) rules in US law (although the linked page is accurate. A wok made by an employee within the scope of employment is a WFH unless an employment contract says otherwise. A work commissioned from a contractor will be a WFH only if the work i one of a limited set of types (whch do,not include "computer program") But even if a work by a contractor is not a WFH, the contract may transfer the copyright to thye paying party, and if it does it is effective. The difference between a WFH and a trasferred copyright is subtle. Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 16:34

I refer you to @Trish answer but …

If you’re an employee, your employer owns the copyright.

  • ah yes, forgot the Work for Hire doctrine!
    – Trish
    Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 9:28
  • An employment contract can change that rule, but usually that is not done. Commented Jul 31, 2022 at 16:35

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