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Viewed one way, computer programs are nothing more than a series of numerical relationships (termed “routines”) and as such cannot qualify for a patent, although they can be covered under the copyright laws because they constitute a creative work of expression. However, viewed from another perspective, computer programs are a set of instructions that make a machine (the computer) operate in a certain way. In recent years, many patents have been issued on computer programs where the program affected some hardware or process or performed some commercially useful function. When choosing whether to rely on copyright or a patent for software, the software author must weigh the broader offensive rights that a patent brings against the expense and time in obtaining one. Likewise, the ease with which copyright is obtained must be counterbalanced by the narrow nature of its coverage.
Because software is one of the few creations that may be subject to both patent and copyright protection, it is important to understand the distinctions. In this section, we discuss the differences and provide information about how copyright can be used to protect software programs.