Computer Law 484
Professor Richard H. Stern
Main Page - Course Description

Last updated 7-14-2018

Computer Law 484: Intellectual Property
Rights in Computer-Related Subject Matter

This is the home page for Professor Stern's Computer Law course. Select (click on) the image at the left to go to the course Bulletin Board for any updates of course materials or other current, course-related information. The rest of this page contains general information about this course. Please read it before you decide to take the course.

Contents of this web page

What is this course about?

Starting with 2011, because computer law developments in the patent field have become much more controversial and exciting than those in the copyright field, the focus of this course will be mainly on statutory subject matter issues for claims to computer-related subject matter (now also termed patent eligibility). Copyright issues will be addressed mainly just to compare copyright's and patent law's different or similar treatment of the same questions.

It will likely take some years for the impact of the Supreme Court's 2010 Bilski and 2014 Alice opinions to subside. To reemphasize the point, because of the so-called Alice-storm – the enormous change in the treatment of the patent eligibility of computer-related inventions after the Alice case, both in the Federal Circuit and the district courts, the main focus of the course for the near future (post-2014) will be on section 101 (35 U.S.C. § 101) issues – patent eligibility – and the background leading up to the present state of affairs. This material is in chapters 7 and 8 of the course’s on-line casebook. For the time being, the copyright material is not being used.

The following more than decade-old material is adapted from the Preface to the 2002 hardcopy edition of the casebook for the course, Stern & Raskind, Intellectual Property Protection of Digital Information in the New Millennium: Rights in Computer Programs and Related Subject Matter: Cases and Materials (Jan. 2002 ed., ver. 0.10)("ver. 0.10" means that it was still in beta test). That Preface will give you an idea of the general subject matter that the course covers. (There no longer is a paper version of the materials and the constantly-revised online materials that replaced them have no Preface.)

These materials address the basis of protection of computer programs and related subject matter (generically termed, here, "software") under intellectual property law and related legal doctrines. The adaptation of traditional legal doctrines of copyright, patent, trade secret, and other trade regulation law to new and evolving software technology has already produced a substantial volume of legislation, judicial opinions, and commentary. On some issues, consensus exists. Other issues seem intractable, not only because they are complex, but because their resolution presses existing legal doctrines to their limits or beyond. Other issues appear to be reaching resolution by case law evolution that has accomplished an extension or modification of traditional analysis to address this distinctive kind of technology.

As software technology increasingly serves virtually every facet of industrial, commercial, and personal activity, this area of the law has attracted the attention of practitioners, legislators, marketers of software, and users of computers and computer software. These materials are designed to present the principal topics concerning the nature and scope of intangible property rights in software, the remedies available against invasion of those rights, and limitations on these rights that the rights of other persons (competitors, users, the general public) generate. The different treatment of the same legal problems by foreign legal systems provides a useful comparative perspective, and some European Community and other foreign material are therefore included as a supplement to the United States material.

Adaptation — successful and unsuccessful — is a unifying theme of these materials. The underlying principles of copyright, patent, and related doctrines have their origins in the 17th Century technology of the hand-operated printing press and the l9th Century technology of the cotton gin, as modulated by the 17th Century Statute of Monopolies and earlier trade regulation case law. Adapting this melange de tout to computer software has considerably challenged our legal system with varied results. As legislators, courts, and commentators undertake to adapt, modify, or rationalize traditional intellectual property law to fit computer and software technology, the premises and assumptions of that body of law are brought into and out of focus, questioned, reaffirmed, rejected even clarified. The materials presented here attempt to provide a toolkit of data and concepts for legal analysis and to illuminate the policy choices that different approaches imply.

The basic framework of protection, the Copyright Act, is presently under intensive review. A recent report by the Department of Commerce Information Infrastructure Task Force, Intellectual Property and the National Information Infrastructure, recommending changes in the Copyright Act, noted the pressure of software technology on the existing statutory framework:

The emergence of integrated information technology is dramatically changing, and will continue to change, how people and businesses deal in information...products and services, and how works are created, owned, distributed, reproduced, displayed, performed, licensed, managed, presented, organized, sold, accessed, used, and stored. This leads, understandably, to a call for change in the law.

Ferment proceeds as well in the Federal Circuit and Patent and Trademark Office.

This set of materials is a work in progress.

What is this course NOT about?

The field of computer law embraces many things other than proprietary (intellectual property) rights in software. Some aspects of computer law not covered in Computer Law 484 involve software contracting, torts resulting from supply of faulty software, WWW defamation, WWW first amendment issues, application of export control laws to software, and "hacking."


The syllabus for the course is the same as the table of contents for the cases and materials. To examine a recent version of the table of contents, select Table. An abbreviated version of the table of contents - syllabus with links to HTML versions of the chapters is also available. (Starting in January 2004, the course materials were uploaded to this Web site and no further updated printed casebook was used. Each student enrolled in Computer Law 484 is granted a nonroyalty-bearing, personal, nontransferable license to download and print and/or electronically copy the Web site materials for the student's own use in connection with the course.)

The course materials are updated if and when new cases are decided that change how we should view this field of law.

Course prerequisites and requirements
(and caveat emptor):

  • It is a requirement of this course that you read the following before taking the course. For undergraduate law students, the permission of the professor is also required. To find out how to get that permission, use this link .

  • An E.E. or C.S. degree is not required for this course. But it is often very difficult for students without that background to understand the issues that cases raise. Those students without such technical background can deal with the cases (as, after all, most judges do), but they will need to find outside sources of information to catch up with other students with technical backgrounds, and at the very least to read all of the limited tutorial materials in the casebook. Students with no technical background and no prior familiarity with software and Internet technology may well be disappointed with the course, because it may seem to them not well adapted to their needs.

  • It is not a course requirement that you have previously taken any patent law or copyright courses, but that is very strongly recommended. If you have neither any prior IP background nor any technical background, this course may not be suited to your needs. You need to be highly motivated, in such circumstances, to make the course worth your while.

  • It is expected that you will have read and considered the cases to be covered in a class session. It is not possible to get much out of a class in this course unless you have done that, and you cannot contribute to the classroom give and take without knowing what the cases are about. It is helpful to read a little ahead, because sometimes things may proceed a little faster than anticipated.

  • There is no final examination. Instead, a paper is required. The grade for the course will be based on the paper, subject to the next paragraph. For a discussion of the requirements for the term paper, select Paper. Feedback on your paper is available, if you want to submit outlines and drafts before the end of the semester. But that is entirely optional and you are not obliged to do so. Several times I have experimented with suggesting that everyone write the same paper – a draft opinion (with optional dissents) for a pending Supreme Court or Federal Circuit case on section 101 of the patent code. That has often worked very well, because it integrates the material for the entire course, but it depends on such a case (Bilski and Alice were examples) being pending before the court. Papers may be handed in on the last day of class or sent by email before the end of the exam period.

  • It is expected that each person taking the course will be prepared generally to contribute to the discussion during class on the basis of having read and considered the cases, notes, and other materials to be discussed (including those posted at the .../claw/... web site from time to time). Grades may be raised or lowered by one grade step on the foregoing basis, for example, from B to B+.

  • The course is geared to students who are self-directed and are at least mildly technophilic. The subject matter may often seem chaotic and disordered, even irrational. (That is a problem with cases in computer-related IP law. The problem comes with the territory.) There are not many answers, and at the very least there are many more questions than answers. This is not a stable, well ordered part of the law. It lacks a coherent structure and you will often be left with the feeling that courts have made it up ad hoc. People who are uncomfortable with disorderly seeming parts of the law would probably be happier studying something else that seems to make more sense and be more structured. (GWLS has many other courses that meet that requirement.)

  • It is highly unlikely that you will be able to absorb the subject matter passively or go away after a semester with a head stuffed with black letter computer law. There are at least two big obstacles to any of that. The first is the present state of computer law – it is still very much a work in progress (see preceding paragraphs). The second is the way this course is taught. There will be little or nothing in the way of lectures that lay everything out so that your class notes will provide you with a computer law primer or hornbook. Rather, classes will be much like the Notes that follow each case in the casebook or Web page. (Mostly questions that may not have well defined answers. Many unresolved issues. Also, there usually is not a well defined beginning, middle, and end.) Some students will not be pleased with that approach. Those students deserve fair warning that this course is not suited to their preferred teaching style.

  • Before enrolling for the course, you may want to consider the online course materials linked at the syllabus. You are invited to open the materials at random and read some of the Notes after case reports. If you don't like the Notes, you won't like the course. If you like the Notes, maybe this course is for you.

  • There is a reason for the saying in the computer field that the leading edge is the bleeding edge. Computer Law 484 tries to follow the cutting edge of the law, but it's not always clear which way the blade is pointed.

  • If after reading all of the foregoing you still want to take this course, you are most welcome. Follow the counsel of Professor Karl Llewellyn and jump into the bramble bush. Come on in and enjoy Computer Law 484.

If the foregoing does not cover what you really want to know, please feel free to send any questions in an e-mail to Professor Stern using the mailto shown below.



    Click on email address link — — for an email “mailto” for Professor Stern.

You have been viewing the home page for Professor Stern's Computer Law course. Select (click on) the image at the left to go to the course Bulletin Board for any updates of course materials or other current, course-related information.