A federal judge gave Apple Computer Inc. an important victory Friday in its legal battle with fellow computer giants Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard over the visual displays for Apple's Macintosh system.

U.S. District Judge William Schwarzer's tentative ruling held that a 1985 Apple-Microsoft licensing agreement did not entitle Micro-soft to produce a display program called Windows 2.03, the target of the copyright lawsuit."Windows 2.03, the product as it is now being offered, is not covered by the license," Schwarzer said.

That means Microsoft cannot claim permission from Apple to market a program with visual displays similar to those in the Macintosh, Apple's biggest-selling model. But the case is far from over.

Apple still must prove that Windows 2.03 is "substantially similar" to the distinctive Macintosh screen graphics.