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European Commission to cough €12m for software badnesses

Developers' rights lost in translation

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The European Commission must pay software firm Systran €12 million in damages for infringing its copyright when it asked other companies to work on Systran's software, the EU's General Court has ruled.

Systran created a specially adapted version of its Systran-Unix machine translation software for the Commission, calling it EC-Systran Unix, between 1997 and 2002.

In 2003, the commission published a call for tenders for work updating its machine translation systems. That call included demands that a company conduct "enhancements, adaptations and additions to linguistic routines ... specific improvements to analysis, transfer and synthesis programs ... [and] system updates", according to a statement from the General Court.

Systran told the Commission that the work the Commission was asking for tenders for would infringe the copyright in Systran's software.

"After correspondence between Systran and the Commission, the latter took the view that Systran had not produced ‘probative documents’ capable of establishing the rights which Systran might claim in respect of its EC-Systran Unix machine translation system," said a General Court statement. "The Commission therefore considered that the Systran group had no right to object to the work carried out by the company which had been successful in the call for tenders."

Systran sued the commission, claiming that it had illegally shared Systran's know-how with a third party and that the unauthorised development of Systran software infringed its copyrights.

The contract agreed by the commission and Systran did not directly deal with know-how and third-party development of the software, but the General court said that the commission had a non-contractual liability.

"The Commission acted unlawfully by infringing the general principles common to the law of the Member States applicable to copyright and know-how," said the statement. The ruling is not yet available in English.

Systran was allowed by the court to rely on the copyright it held in the Systran-Unix product because it was so similar to the EC-Systran Unix software used by the commission.

The commission said that it had rights to some elements of the EC-Systran product but could not rely on those in court because it was not clear enough about exactly which parts of it it had rights to.

"The Commission was unable to establish over which parts of the core material and the linguistic routines of Systran Unix it claimed rights of property as a result, inter alia, of the rights it held in dictionaries encoded by its own staff," said the statement.

"By granting the right to carry out work which necessarily entailed an alteration of elements of the Systran Unix version of the Systran software which are within the EC-Systran Unix version, without first obtaining the consent of the Systran group, the Commission acted unlawfully," it said.

The Court awarded Systran €7m for the fees which it said Systran would have charged for permission to use its intellectual property between 2004 and 2007. It awarded a further €5m for the effect that the commission's decision had on Systran's turnover.

The Court awarded a further €1,000 "as compensation for non-material damage".

Copyright © 2010, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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