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Microsense Systems Ltd v Control Systems Technology Ltd ChD 17 July 1991
Microsense Systems Ltd v Control Systems Technology Ltd Ch D 17 July 1991, dealt with an old issue in copyright law. What is the minimum 'size' of a work for copyright protection.
The plaintiffs designed and built electronic signalling systems for controlling road traffic. The software was installed in particular within pelican crossings. An operator was able to change the way a particular set of lights worked by resetting the signals using a set of mnemonics or codes, invented by the plaintiffs. That set of mnemonics had come to be adopted in large part as the basis for a standard set promoted by the Department of Transport, and intended to be used by various manufacturers.
The defendants were former employees of the Plaintiff, who left to set up a competing organisation. To control the signals, the defendants had to provide a way of using the same codes to work the plaintiff's signals. The plaintiff claimed, inter alia, breach of copyright in the use of the codes.
The first question was whether the judge could find a copyright inhering in a series of three letter mnemonics. J Aldous found that it was arguable that such did exist (this was an interlocutory motion, and therefore that was the standard which mattered). He asked himself about the amount of skill and labour expended, and it was clear that the development of the list of codes had in fact taken just such labour, but as part of the development of their system as a whole.
The case may be difficult to sustain, and care should be taken before relying upon it. The report is unclear as to the extent of the copying, and it is also unclear what was the effect of the adoption of the mnemonics by the Department of Transport as part of their larger list. It seems to me that this was an implicit licence to the DoT and anyone who might subsequently seek to contract with that Department to maintain the signals - ven if cin competition with the plaintiffs.
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