Pyrotechnics (under the “FireOne” brand) claims to be the “world leader in digital pyrotechnic firing systems.” The system involves a central unit, field modules, and software to run the system. Communication between the central unit and the field modules takes place via a “proprietary protocol.” FireTEK, a Romanian competitor, reverse-engineered Pyrotechnics’ hardware to understand the protocol, then it built a rival central unit that could control Pyrotechnics’ field modules. Pyrotechnics registered a copyright in its protocol and sued FireTek for copyright infringement.
Let’s take a closer look at Pyrotechnics’ registration. According to the deposit copy, “the protocol includes three components: (1) a custom digital message format; (2) specified individual messages that conform to the format and communicate specific information; and (3) a transmission scheme that describes how an individual digital message is converted into an analog signal that can be sent over the wires that connect the control panel and field module.” This kind of vague technical jargon is what we typically see in patent specifications, not “original works of authorship.” Indeed, the court says “the Deposit Copy reads like a manual, instructing a user how to generate digital messages—and convert those digital messages to analog signals—that Pyrotechnics’s control panel and field module can send and understand.”
Pyrotechnics’ copyright registration then starts to fall apart. It didn’t register any source or object code. The court says it can’t protect “elements of Pyrotechnics’s protocol related to the transmission scheme” because those are methods of operation per 102(b). The deposit copy text may be copyrightable as such, but that doesn’t necessarily protect “the digital message format or individual messages described in the Deposit Copy.”
So the question becomes: are the digital message format and the individual messages copyrightable? We conclude not…Pyrotechnics’s digital message format is an uncopyrightable idea and the individual digital messages described in the Deposit Copy are insufficiently original to qualify for copyright protection.
The digital message format is uncopyrightable because:
Pyrotechnics admits that there is no way for the control panel to communicate with the field module without using the digital message format. Because there are no other “means of achieving the [protocol’s] desired purpose” of communicating with the devices, the digital message format must be part of the uncopyrightable idea and not a protectable expression
In a footnote, the court adds: “extending copyright protection to Pyrotechnics’s digital message format would yield the very situation merger seeks to prevent: granting Pyrotechnics a monopoly on communication with its field modules. To secure such a monopoly, Pyrotechnics could have sought a patent, but it did not.”
The individual messages between the central unit and the field modules lack originality. “The digital message format provides rules for constructing messages with particular meanings, and individual messages are generated by applying those rules mechanically.” Any messages expressly “creatively” would fail to work with the field modules. “Thus, the messages are no more than an ‘inevitable sequence dictated by the logic’ of the format.” The sequencing and organization of the messages follows standard programming norms, so they lack creativity too.
First, the court recognizes the anti-competitive dynamics driving this case. Pyrotechnics wants to control the market for every component of its system. If Pyrotechnics can control the central unit/field module interface, then a customer wanting to switch to a rival vendor would have to toss all of their existing equipment. By allowing FireTEK to compete for the central unit, it lowers customers’ switching costs and reduces barriers to entry. As we celebrate freedom today, let’s also celebrate the idea/expression dichotomy for freeing up marketplaces.
This ruling seemingly addresses some of the missing pieces from the Google v. Oracle litigation. Pyrotechnics didn’t provide an API for its field modules, so FireTEK reverse-engineered the specifications to communicate with the field modules. Copyright law then permits FireTEK to craft messages that enable interoperability. This outcome may be unique due to the quirks of Pyrotechnics’ deposit copy and perhaps the overly simple programming to control the field modules, but the interoperability implications of this ruling ought to apply more universally.
Case citation: Pyrotechnics Management, Inc. v. XFX Pyrotechnics LLC, 2022 WL 2336477 (3d. Cir. June 29, 2022)