European software rules, OK?

The Guardian (Manchester); 07 January 1993; Claire Neesham; p. 17

PEOPLE are returning to work this week to find new trading conditions, new employment opportunities, new rules governing computer software and hardware, and new directives to unify European law. One of these refers to the legal protection of computer programs.

This is the first time software has been given its own legislation in Europe. Previously computer programs have been bundled with literary works, and protection against illegal copying has depended on the local copyright laws which range from effective legislation in the UK to nothing in some countries.

According to Dai Davis, a partner in charge of computer law at solicitors Eversheds Hepworth & Chadwick, the new directive will have far reaching effects across the EC. These will be most noticeable in countries with no previous legal protection for software, but all suppliers and users will have some new rights. For UK users, the most significant change is the right, in certain circumstances, to ''reverse engineer'' software and study the source code. This will be allowed if a user wants to create a program that interoperates with (but does not replace) the original program, and only when the necessary information is not readily available from the supplier. Previously, the supplier could prevent decompilation by restrictive licensing, but rights granted under European law can't be taken away by contract.

Software suppliers also gain new rights. For instance, users who want to copy a program for research or private study can no longer claim exemption if the research involves decompilation. In the past, colleges and universities got around copyright legislation if they could prove software was being used for legitimate private research - such as studying a program's structure.

There are also new rules for joint ownership of software. Under the Directive each author of part of a program will now be recognised as a joint author of the whole program. However, this legislation is not included in the new UK law, which continues to state that joint ownership only arises where authors' works are not distinct from one another.

Other changes include the right to swoop on companies and seize software that infringes copyright. This has been legal in the UK since 1985. In the past year the UK's Federation Against Software Theft (Fast) has initiated legal proceedings against five major organisations, including the Mirror Group and Tatung Computers. This fate may now be befall organisations throughout Europe.

Davis believes the directive gives more rights both to suppliers who want to restrict use of their software and to users. But, he adds, the directive does not distinguish between a lone PC user and large firms running Europe-wide applications. This means the larger user is likely to gain most from the new legislation.

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