Can Software User Interface be Protected by China Copyright Law?


(By Albert Chen) User Interfaces (UI) are generally excluded from copyright protection, because a UI simply allows the software to be used by displaying various methods of operation; that being said, because UIs are all essentially limited by incorporating similar functions, similar kinds of software inevitably reach creative limits in expression of UI layouts and specification of features and functions. Looking at UIs in another way, the basic UI layout and framework essentially enter the public domain, and ergo are not afforded protection under the Copyright Law.

Case Summary

Beijing-based Jiuqi Software Co., Ltd (“Jiuqi”) developed its financial statement software (“Jiuqi Software”) in 1999, and registered its software with the copyright office. In 2003, Jiuqi Company found out that the Shanghai-based Tianchen Computer Software Co., Ltd. (“Tianchen”)’s subsequently developed software had essentially copied almost all the elements of Jiuqi’s software, and in response Jiuqi filed suit against Tianchen.

After accepting the case, the court in the first instance conducted its own investigation regarding Jiuqi’s claims, and found that both Jiuqi and Tianchen’s software incorporated similar menus, button names, information column names, specification of button functions, the specific statement icon and the UI. In addition, the court confirmed that there was no similarity in terms of the source code and object code found in the software.

Based on an investigation of the facts involved in the case, the court decided the primary focus of the dispute between Jiuqi and Tianchen to be whether Jiuqi had copyright over its software UI. Following this, the court further decided that in order to determine whether a party enjoys copyright protection, it is imperative to individually examine each element constituting the work (in this case, Jiuqi’s user interface).

(1) Regarding Menus and Button Names

The buttons imbedded in Jiuqi’s Software all contained a corresponding function, with each button being essential to proper operation of the software. This, however, is not protected by Copyright Law.

(2) Regarding Information Column Names and Various Elements Involved in Integration the UI’s Icon

Both pieces of software are financial statement software, and with regard to the relevant column names, all are set as required by the Financial Ministry or Shanghai State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, and are therefore not original creations from Jiuqi. As for the elements integrating the UI’s icon, like the menu bar, dialog box, windows and scroll bar, etc., all are elements adopted by most designers in user interface design. For this reason, the information column names and elements integrating the UI’s icon are not protected by the Copyright Law.

(3) Regarding Explanations of a Button’s Function, Icons Indicating Certain Specifications, and the General Layout

The written explanations of a button’s function typically consists of a brief introduction to the function of a specific button, and that expression is naturally limited to a finite number of ways, and therefore lacks originality. The general layout of all requisite elements in a software UI is but a simply combination, and similarly cannot be considered an original creation. For this reason, the button function explanations, icons indicating a specific function or notice, and the overall layout of the software was not found to meet the requirements of originality as a creative work to receive protection pursuant to the Copyright Law.

Based on the above reasons, the court rejected all of Jiuqi’s claims against Tianchen regarding infringement of its software UI.

Lawyer Comments

In fact, it has been long argued whether software UIs can be protected by the Copyright Law, for the law requires that only those works with originality can be considered protected works. But operation of software and carrying out software functions all depend on operation as per the settings in the software UI. Therefore, whether software UIs can be included within the scope of protection as an original work under the Copyright Law has long been the subject of great debate.

However, in assessing the rulings handed down by China’s courts in the past several years, it becomes rather clear that the general rule is that software UIs are not protected by the Copyright Law. The author also supports this general opinion, and would like to conclude with opinions in reference to the case introduced in this essay as follows:

(1) Software User Interfaces generally show the function of the software and is considered a method of operating the software

The page layout of the software includes the coloring, lines, modules and overall arrangement of those elements, and all these are the result of intellectual choice and design. But those choices and designs essentially serve to facilitate software functions, and for the same kind software, user interfaces will generally appear to be the same in layout, because they are serving very similar functions.

At the same time, objectively, like the court said in hearing the case, “a user operates the computer program through the UI, and the UI displays the result of the users input. Because the UI serves a practical purpose in making the software easy for the end-user to operate, the design of the UI is typically based on demands made from the end-user. To that end, those demands will refer to elements already existing the UI, and design choices will be made taking into consideration the end-user’s habits and expectations. Considering these, the similarity on the function may cause one to refer to similarity in the UI, when in actuality the similarity is to be found in the method of operating the software, rather than the UI as an individual entity. Moreover, methods of operating software are considered a kind of idea, and ideas as such are not considered protectable under the Copyright Law.

(2) The Issues Regarding Limitation of Expression in User Interface Design

Just like inevitable similarities in the way software functions, the position of function buttons and methods of operation are also necessarily similar. Therefore, despite some expressions regarding methods of operation being protected in the Copyright Law, due to the limited amount of ways in which such elements can be expressed, if such content were able to enjoy protection in the Copyright Law, it would necessarily lead to a monopoly by some parties who first use some of these methods of expression and operation. Monopolization of this type of content in software development would prevent further development of similar works, and this would be contradictory to the purpose of the Copyright Law to encourage original creative works. For this reason, the above discussed software elements, including the setting of functions, the overall layout of a UI, or the specifications regarding its operation cannot be protected by Copyright Law.

(3) The Overall Page Layout Design of Specific Types of Software are Already in the Public Domain

The most basic settings in software like “print” or “save” are integral parts of software operation, and are considered to be part of the public domain, and therefore unable to enjoy protection in the copyright law. For sure, in addition to these general software settings, for some specific kinds of software, something like a contact list or dialogue box in instant messaging software, are all elements found in the public domain, and any entity wishing to develop software using these elements can rest easy knowing they have legal access to such elements.

Currently, software UIs are generally not protected pursuant to the Copyright Law, and as noted by the author, some associates also claim that to copy the practice in foreign countries which is protecting the UI through patented design, is not feasible in China (note: the link is in Chinese). However, despite these claims, according to the author’s experience, software developers can protect their software layout through the Unfair Competition Law and the Trademark Law.

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