Whether decompiling software code is illegal?

The European Court has ruled in case  C‑13/20 Top System SA v Белгия which focuses our attention on the question to what extent decompiling software code can be legal.

Top System is a company governed by Belgian law that develops computer programs and provides IT services.

SELOR is the public body, which is responsible in Belgium, for selecting and orienting the future personnel of the authorities’ various public services. Following SELOR’s integration into the service public fPolicy and Support Federal Public Service, the Belgian State replaced that body as the defendant in the main proceedings.

Since 1990, Top System has collaborated with SELOR, on whose behalf it provides IT development and maintenance services.

In order to fulfil its tasks, SELOR has gradually put in place IT tools to enable applications to be submitted and processed online.

At the request of SELOR, Top System developed several applications which contain (i) functionalities originating from its framework software called ‘Top System Framework’ (‘the TSF’) and (ii) functionalities designed to meet SELOR’s specific needs.

SELOR has a user license for the applications developed by Top System.

On 6 February 2008, SELOR and Top System concluded an agreement for the installation and configuration of a new development environment as well as the integration of the sources of SELOR’s applications into, and their migration to, that new environment.

Between June and October 2008, there was an exchange of emails between SELOR and Top System about operating problems affecting certain applications using the TSF.

Having failed to reach agreement with SELOR on the resolution of those problems, on 6 July 2009, Top System brought an action against SELOR and the Belgian State before the Commercial Court, Brussels, Belgium seeking, inter alia, a declaration that SELOR had decompiled the TSF, in breach of Top System’s exclusive rights in that software. Top System also claimed that SELOR and the Belgian State should be ordered to pay it damages for the decompilation of and copying of the source codes from that software, together with compensatory interest, from the estimated date of that decompilation, that is to say, from 18 December 2008 at the latest.

On 26 November 2009, the case was referred to the Court of First Instance, Brussels, Belgium which, by judgment of 19 March 2013, in essence, dismissed Top System’s application.

Top System brought an appeal against that judgment before the referring court, the Court of Appeal, Brussels, Belgium.

Before that court, Top System submits that SELOR unlawfully decompiled the TSF. According to the applicant, under Articles 6 and 7 of the LPO, decompilation can be carried out only with the authorisation of the author, the successor in title of that author, or for interoperability purposes. On the other hand, decompilation is not permitted for the purpose of correcting errors affecting the functioning of the program concerned.

SELOR acknowledges that it decompiled part of the TSF in order to disable a defective function. However, it submits, inter alia, that, under Article 6(1) of the LPO, it was entitled to carry out that decompilation in order to correct certain design errors affecting the TSF, which made it impossible to use that software in accordance with its intended purpose. SELOR also relies on its right, under Article 6(3) of the LPO, to observe, study or test the functioning of the program concerned in order to ascertain the underlying ideas and principles of the relevant TSF functionalities in order to be able to prevent the blockages caused by those errors.

The referring court takes the view that, in order to determine whether SELOR was entitled to carry out that decompilation on the basis of Article 6(1) of the LPO, it is for that court to ascertain whether the decompilation of all or part of a computer program comes within the acts referred to in Article 5(a) and (b) of the LPO.

In those circumstances, the Court of Appeal, Brussels decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the Court of Justice for a preliminary ruling:

‘(1) Is Article 5(1) of [Directive 91/250] to be interpreted as permitting the lawful purchaser of a computer program to decompile all or part of that program where such decompilation is necessary to enable that person to correct errors affecting the operation of the program, including where the correction consists in disabling a function that is affecting the proper operation of the application of which the program forms a part?

(2) In the event that that question is answered in the affirmative, must the conditions referred to in Article 6 of the directive, or any other conditions, also be satisfied?’

The Court decision is:

1. Article 5(1) of Council Directive 91/250/EEC of 14 May 1991 on the legal protection of computer programs must be interpreted as meaning that the lawful purchaser of a computer program is entitled to decompile all or part of that program in order to correct errors affecting its operation, including where the correction consists in disabling a function that is affecting the proper operation of the application of which that program forms a part.

2.  Article 5(1) of Directive 91/250 must be interpreted as meaning that the lawful purchaser of a computer program who wishes to decompile that program in order to correct errors affecting the operation thereof is not required to satisfy the requirements laid down in Article 6 of that directive. However, that purchaser is entitled to carry out such a decompilation only to the extent necessary to effect that correction and in compliance, where appropriate, with the conditions laid down in the contract with the holder of the copyright in that program.

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