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Altair pays off $79m owed to SAS in software license spat, will sell rival product

Epic copyright saga rumbles on as US giant vows to keep fighting UK data analytics firm

The long-running battle between software giant SAS and British data analytics outfit World Programming (WPL) appears to be almost over – after a US court lifted an injunction on sales of the latter's products.

Altair, a Michigan software house that just bought WPL, said it had paid the remaining $65.9 million WPL owed to SAS, satisfying a 2019 North Carolina judgment against WPL and paving the way for Altair to start global sales of WPL's data analytics software.

The pair filed a joint notice of payment [PDF] in March this year.

Can you copyright a software function?

Litigation between UK-based World Programming Limited (WPL) and SAS has been ongoing for almost 12 years. As previously reported, WPL obtained a copy of SAS's analytics product, saw how it worked, and created a competing product using the same basic functions but not the same code.

SAS sued in 2010 for patent infringement and a breach of license conditions – saying WPL had breached the agreement attached to SAS Learning Edition in order to test and create its own software. It sought damages and an injunction to stop WPL selling its products.

It lost in the UK courts. It tried again with European judges, but lost again in 2012. The late French judge, advocate-general Yves Bot, wrote in his 2011 opinion [PDF] that software functions could not be copyrighted. "To accept that a functionality of a computer program can be protected as such would amount to making it possible to monopolise ideas, to the detriment of technological progress and industrial development."

'Lack of respect for American courts and American law'

SAS also made efforts to battle WPL via the US legal system, where a jury in North Carolina ruled in SAS's favor in 2015 on some of its claims [PDF], specifically breach of contract, saying WPL had breached SAS's license agreement and had committed fraud. The British company was ordered to pay SAS a total of $79 million in compensation as a result, made up by trebling around $26m in direct losses.

SAS then applied to the High Court in London for an enforcement order letting it collect the $79 million from WPL's worldwide revenues, including non-US customers. This was a matter of some dispute in the UK courts (as we covered here), although US judges in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with SAS, describing one of the UK rulings against the US software firm as an "affront" and accused WPL of having "shown a lack of respect for American courts and American law".

In 2020 the US Court of Appeals upheld a 2019 injunction [PDF] prohibiting WPL from licensing WPS to any new customer in the US until SAS received the $79m awarded to it on the fraud and breach of contract claims.

Its copyright claims were not upheld.

In the meantime, in 2021, WPL was acquired by Altair, a deal that included WPS Analytics, the SAS-language-like platform that had irked SAS so.

According to Altair: "With its payment of the 2019 North Carolina judgment, Altair brought an end to nearly 12 years of litigation between SAS and WPL except for an appeal filed by SAS in the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit after a federal court in Texas ruled against SAS on its copyright and patent claims."

SAS has good reason to be concerned. Companies have invested huge sums in its platform over the years, and we can well imagine the consternation caused by the thought of those same customers being able to leverage decades of experience in its language in work with trendier open-source languages. All without filling SAS's coffers.

Copyright appeals

For SAS's part, it's not over. It told The Reg: "Altair paid off the balance of the $79 million judgment and the injunction was lifted as a result.

"As the US appellate court stated in confirming that WPL committed fraud and breach of contract, 'In violation of a license agreement, WPL reverse engineered a SAS product to speed development of its own product. … This is not the sort of 'innovation' or 'competition' encouraged by U.S. law.'

It added: "The SAS copyright case is still pending a decision in the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals."

Altair responded: "The sole outstanding legal matter is the appeal that SAS filed in Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit after it lost the copyright claims it asserted in the 2018 suit SAS filed in the Eastern District of Texas. We are awaiting the opinion of the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit." ®

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