It started late in 1987 when Judge Will A. Peel handed down his famous opinion on the case of Blossom Growth vs. CheaplyMade Software. Judge Peel had agreed wholeheartedly with the plaintiff’s argument that CheaplyMade’s tax evasion product, Tricky Accountant, had infringed on the "look and feel" of their best-selling program, Rosebud.
Thaddius Tort, the star attorney hired to lead the Blossom legal team, argued that CheaplyMade had stolen their command structure. Both products used a menuing system where, for example, ^D brought up the deduction menu and ^B produced the list of bought politicians. This illegal imitation, counsel argued, had not only cut into their sales by 2 1/2 percent but had created confusion in the industry because people did not know which program they were using.
CheaplyMade argued that they had made significant improvements on Blossom’s package, such as a three dimensional loophole generator and an emergency erase procedure for government audits. Besides, although they used the same command structure, the look and feel were significantly different because, on an EGA system, they showed a pink background rather than Rosebud’s orange.
In the end, Judge Peel was forced to rely on the most basic of courtroom procedures in order to decide the case. After he had subpoenaed the books of both parties, he determined that Blossom Growth had spent more money on lawyers for this case and therefore ruled in their favor. CheaplyMade Software was ordered to pay forty million in general and specific damages and rewrite their program.
Had CheaplyMade Software not been bankrupted by legal fees, these orders would no doubt have been carried out.
No sooner had the executives at Blossom finished celebrating their success when they were slapped with a suit by the R.U. Holding Co., which owned the rights to the now-defunct Visible Glut, the original tax evasion program. Rosebud, they claimed, had created a new command structure by simply reversing the order of an old one.
At that point, software companies stopped creating new programs and updating their current ones. No one, it seemed, could afford both programmers and lawyers.
Moreland International retained the services of the Honorable Mr. Tort himself, bringing five different publishers of RAM-resident utilities to court. They argued that all existing pop-up programs were stealing the look and feel of their ground-breaking bestseller, Backkick.
Before these cases could be brought to the bench, however, Moreland found itself on the other side of the courtroom. It seemed that Backkick’s notetaker used the same curser control keys as MicroIdea’s formerly bestselling word processor, Words Without End.
Meanwhile, over on the database front, MicroDependable Ltd. started looking over their competitors’ products to decide who was stealing looks and feels from their product, nBase 4 1/2. Mr. Tort had just assured them that they were the first to use the terms "field" and "record" when they were sued by a lone hacker named Chip Banks who contended that nBase’s interface for sorting data was taken from an old shareware product of his.
All across the country, the cost of software went through the roof while profits plummeted through the floor. Meanwhile, Mr. Tort’s new company, MicroLitigation, Inc., was included in the Fortune 500 listing.
By the end of 1988, 563 separate lawsuits involving look and feel copyright infringement were before the courts. Judges who two years before hadn’t known a hard disk from a bad back were having to decide who first made use of function keys and where the term "error message" originated.
Thaddeus Tort, now the richest man in the computer industry, could now afford a few minutes of quiet reflection. He was sitting in his office one day, dreaming about how one man must have written the very first computer program and how he would like to meet that man, when he received an unexpected phone call.
"Mr. Tort," said the voice on the other end, "I’m Harwick Hoolihan of the law offices of Hoolihan, Abraham, Rotterdam, and Jump. I just read your opening statements from the case of MicroIntelligence vs. Softcode, Inc."
"How’d you like them?"
"Very interesting. In fact, they have the look and feel of some opening arguments I once used. Expect a process server in the morning."