Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but a spate of lawsuits shows computer software companies aren't the least bit grateful for such adulation. Last week, Lotus Development Corporation of Cambridge, Mass. - one of the nation's most well-known software developers - was sued for $100 million for alleged copyright infringement.
The allegation was made by SAPC Inc., a small, Cambridge-based software company that produced one of the first popular spreadsheet computer programs - VisiCalc.
Lotus officials firmly maintain the SAPC suit is ``totally without merit'' and will be proven so in court.
The SAPC suit alleges that Lotus, and its founder Mitchell D. Kapor, used confidential information and trade secrets to imitate the ``look and feel'' of VisiCalc to develop the highly popular Lotus 1-2-3 computer spreadsheet program.
Mr. Kapor worked for Software Arts Inc. before it changed its name to SAPC. SAPC sold Lotus the name Software Arts and rights to VisiCalc in 1985.
Software copyright infringement is ``a very controversial problem,'' says Arthur Greenbaum, an attorney with Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman in New York. ``Copyright law says something is protected with respect to its expression. With respect to computer programs, the distinction between idea and expression starts to merge.''
Certainly the suit is not without irony for Lotus, which has used the same ``look and feel'' argument to zealously file copyright suits against companies it believes imitate Lotus products.
Lotus is currently suing Mosaic Software of Cambridge, and Paperback Software Inc. of Berkeley, Calif., alleging they both offer products that infringe on the Lotus 1-2-3 copyright.
Right now, the extent to which software can be protected by copyright is ``still somewhat nebulous,'' says Michael W. Blommer, executive director of the American Intellectual Property Lawyers Association.
``Software is in a shakedown phase [in the courts],'' Mr. Blommer says. But it is getting clearer all the time, he says, as the validity of such issues as the ``look and feel'' of software become better defined.
Blommer says Congress has, in recent years, moved to strengthen copyright, patent, and trademark laws to protect ``intellectual property'' and spur entrepreneurship.
Still, new developments in biotechnology as well as computer software, he says, are opening up huge hazy areas where it isn't clear just what can be protected by copyright.
``The advantage is in being able to market a product without having to put the corresponding amount of development effort into it,'' says Robert E. Frederick, assistant director of the Center of Business Ethics at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.
``You don't have the money invested in the product, and yet you're able to market it for the same price as the man who does have all the money invested in it.''