Anyone who has ever watched Law & Order knows that “you have the right to remain silent” when questioned by police. Furthermore, once a criminal suspect invokes his or her right to an attorney, police must immediately cease any further questioning outside the presence of counsel. These rights are protected by the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution to ensure that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.
Software runs many of our critical business systems. But what happens when the vendor responsible for the software decides to exit the market? Do customers have any legal recourse if they were led to believe product support would continue indefinitely? A state appeals court in Wisconsin recently addressed these questions, and found the customer’s options for relief were limited by its own decision not to purchase extended service contracts.
While intellectual property such as copyrights and trademarks have relatively well-defined boundaries, there are other intangible property concepts like “trade secrets” that are a bit murkier. Most U.S. states have laws to define and protect trade secrets. But it’s not always how broad those definitions are, or how far a business can go in asserting control over certain information. For example, a federal judge in Maryland recently held that static screenshots of a software’s user interface were not, taken on their own, a “trade secret” under state law.
Software development largely disregards national borders. Many open source projects have contributors in different countries, even different continents. But when legal disputes arise, borders suddenly matter again, since courts need to establish their jurisdiction over the parties involved. Recently, a federal judge in Michigan decided to exercise jurisdiction over a Dutch programmer accused of misappropriating a combination of open-source and proprietary code from a local software company. The judge also denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
In most civil trials, such as personal injury claims, expert testimony is an invaluable tool used by both sides to help explain complex technical concepts to lay jurors. You would think expert testimony would be especially welcome in cases involving software copyrights, where jurors may be asked to examine and compare source code written in highly specialized programming languages. But at least one federal appeals court has maintained a ban on such testimony for nearly 40 years–and the U.
Jury duty is a civic responsibility, but many people see it as an inconvenience. Even a simple civil case may require a juror to take several days off from work to sit in a courtroom and listen to the details of some car accident. But every lawsuit is a serious matter, at least to the litigants, and it deserves each juror’s attention and respect. One of the cardinal rules of jury duty is to never discuss a pending case with outsiders.
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “Copyright does not protect the mechanical or utilitarian aspects of works of craftsmanship.” Copyright therefore only applies to the artistic, rather than functional, aspects of a product’s design. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed this principle in a decision reinstating a copyright infringement lawsuit involving perhaps the most utilitarian of objects: a USB flash drive. Direct Technologies LLC, v. Electronic Arts, Inc.
Computer code is a work of authorship subject to U.S. and international copyright laws. This is easy to forget in the open source community where software is freely licensed and re-distributed. But “license” implies the existence of a valid copyright. And software authors who fail to properly establish their copyrights will have a hard time enforcing any purported licenses in court. Employee Assumes He Has Ownership of Code A recent decision by a federal judge in Alabama illustrates the problems that a software developer can face in enforcing copyright against their employer–or in this case, a former employer.
Many people in the tech community have sounded the red alert klaxon over the FBI’s recent demand for Apple’s assistance in rewriting its proprietary iOS software to disable certain security features. In some corners, Apple is portrayed as a champion of individual liberty against the growing police state. But suppose we change the parameters of the legal scenario. Instead of the FBI demanding a backdoor to access an accused criminal’s iPhone, let’s say a defendant charged with murder has reason to believe that the victim’s locked device might contain exculpatory evidence.