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Source code is "the spelled-out program commands that humans can read."[1]

U.S. Copyright Office[]

Source code is

the computer program code as the programmer originally writes it, using a particular programming language, generally written in a high level-language, such as BASIC, COBOL, or FORTRAN. A program in source code must be changed into object code before the computer can execute it.[2]
a set of statements and instructions written by a human being using a particular programming language, such as Java, LISP, LOGO, PASCAL, Programming Inquiry Learning or Teaching, Programming in Logic, Assembly Language, or other programming languages. Typically, these statements are comprehensible to a person who is familiar with the relevant programming language, but they are not comprehensible to a computer or other electronic device. In order to convey these statements and instructions to a machine, the source code must be converted into object code.[3]

U.S. Export Control Administration[]

Source code is

[a] convenient expression of one or more processes that may be turned by a programming system into equipment executable form (object code . . . ).[4]


Programmers typically write software programs using a high-level computer language such as Basic, C++, or Java. By using the words, symbols and numbers that make up these high-level computer languages, the programmer tells the computer what to do. For instance, the command "ADD (X, Y)" instructs the computer to add the value of the variable X to the variable Y. A computer program written in this high-level language is said to be in source code form.

The source code serves two functions. First, it can be treated as comparable to text material, and in that respect can be printed out, read and studied, and loaded into a computer’s memory, in much the same way as documents are loaded into word processing equipment. Second, the source code can be used to cause the computer to execute the program. To accomplish this, the source code is compiled. This involves an automatic process, performed by the computer under the control of a program called a compiler, which translates the source code into object code, which is very difficult to comprehend by human beings. The object code version of the program is then loaded into the computer’s memory and causes the computer to carry out the program function.[5]

A skilled programmer can review the source code and extract the ideas and algorithms contained in it.


  1. Lexmark Int'l, Inc. v. Static Control Components, Inc., 387 F.3d 522, 533 (6th Cir. 2004) (full-text).
  2. U.S. Copyright Office, Compendium of Copyright Office Practices II, §321.01 (1984).
  3. Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, Third Edition, Glossary, at 15.
  4. U.S. Export Administration Regulations, Part 772 (15 C.F.R. §772.1).
  5. SAS Inst., Inc. v. S&H Computer Sys., Inc., 605 F. Supp. 816, 225 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 916 (M.D. Tenn. 1985) (full-text).

See also[]