By Sun Mingfei King & Wood Mallesons’ Dispute Resolution Group, Guangzhou Office
As Chinese courts rarely accept copyright disputes concerning computer user interfaces, the case of Shenzhen TP-LINK Technologies Co., Ltd vs. Shenzhen Tenda Technology Co., Ltd and Zhang Yabo (the "TP-LINK Case") represents a significant precedent in dealing with similar cases. It is highly controversial even for copyright or computer experts to answer questions such as whether computer user interfaces are under the protection of China’s Copyright Law or how to judge originality of a work in the case.
I. Whether a router’s user interface is under the protection of Copyright Law
Based on Copyright Law principles, only expressions of ideas that have original characters are protected by Copyright Law, from which ideas themselves, crafts, operating methods and mathematical concepts are excluded. The idea-expression divide differentiates between ideas and expression, and states that copyright protects only the original expression of ideas, and not the ideas themselves. In the TP-LINK Case, user interfaces on both parties’ routers is similar: a logo in the upper-left corner; a slogan appearing above; function menu and press-buttons on the left, which explains and are part of the operating method. The above-mentioned operating methods are without Copyright Law protection.
II. Determining the originality of the user interface
Whether a user interface belongs to “works” and has the characteristic of originality is the key issue in a Copyright dispute. According to Article 2 of the Implementing Regulations of the Copyright Law of the People’s Republic of China (the “Implementing Regulations”), the term "works" used in the Copyright Law refers to original intellectual creations in the literary, artistic and scientific domains, in so far as they can be reproduced in a certain tangible form. Originality is the aspect of created or invented works that are new or novel, and thus can be distinguished from reproductions or plagiarism. Originality is the precondition and legal basis to determine copyright infringement, but also the most difficult issue to define.
Judicial practice differs greatly in courts throughout the country due to diversity of standards in determining originality. In theory, there are three academic points of view. The prevailing view is that if a work is completed on one’s own without plagiarism, it is an original work. Some people think an original work must have individual composing characteristics in a formed arrangement, material selection and public introduction, while others have argued from the perspective of the “original proportion” theory in German law. International standards are varied, from “skill, efforts and judgment” in England, “reflect individual personality” in France, or “certain creativity” in the United States.
According to Article 3 of the Implementing Regulations, the term "creation" in the Copyright Law refers to intellectual activities from which literary, artistic and scientific works directly result. An original work is created with a unique style and substance, not received from others nor copied based on the work of others. “Complete a work independently” is the common way to determine originality in Chinese Copyright Law, and means that the author completed a work with independent ideas and individual skills without plagiarism; this is the minimum requirement. Some degree of creativity is another necessary condition. A creative work is the intellectual achievement of author’s efforts and reflects unique personality characteristics. One purpose of the copyright system is to encourage creation and transmission of outstanding works, as legitimate works should make contributions to human civilization. The degree of creativity would be determined according to each individual case.
The user interface (often composed of windows, icons, menus and other visual layouts) is an effective operation and control of the machine by referring to the graphical, textual and auditory information the program presents to the user, and ultimately controlling the sequences the user employs to control the program. Taking user interfaces as a whole, the TL-R460 (the disputed router model in the case) used a common layout for its user interface and has no unique characteristics to gain special protection from the Copyright Law.
III. Balance of interest
Copyright provides the creators of original literary, artistic or scientific works with exclusive rights to control and profit from their works, and also encourages the copyright holders to transmit outstanding works for public interest. Meanwhile, Copyright Law sets certain limitations and exceptions to avoid overprotection and excessive monopoly. Therefore, the Copyright system attempts to balance between individual rights and the public interest.
In this case, the user interfaces from both parties’ routers share many similarities. However, the usage of the router determines the compatibility characteristics of this product. Router user interfaces are designed to satisfy a user’s demand and to facilitate the user’s operation of the equipment, thus it is inevitable to have similar designs, in a sense that user interfaces have design limitations. Shenzhen TP-LINK Technologies Co., Ltd adopted a universal design and had no right to a monopoly of the general expression of user-friendly ideas. Otherwise, such protection could go against the purpose of the copyright system and be damaging to the computer industry and the public interest.