Australian software Copyright Act is to be brought in line with European and US laws making Australian developers more competitive in the international arena, the Department of Communications, Information Technology and Arts and the Attorney-General's office announced this week.
The government is expected to amend several provisions of the Copyright Act in order to allow software developers to decompile software for the purpose of developing compatible products, or to correct errors in programs they are licensed to use, provided the copyright owner cannot supply them with an error-free version.
Both departments emphasized the new legislation will not protect companies who decompile or disassemble products in order to produce software that would be in direct competition with the original product.
Despite reassurances from the government that the amended law should make local products more internationally competitive, the developer community has received the news with mixed emotions.
Philip Brown, general manager of Melbourne-based human resources software developer Mizzisoft, warns the proposed changes can set a " dangerous precedent".
"Software developers are super-protective of their intellectual property that is usually the product they designed. Now, if you open that up to anyone to decompile on the basis of what seem to be very flimsy requirements, then that design is totally open to the world and the developers' livelihood will be taken away from them," he argues.
Brown's company develops rostering, time and attendance software solutions and he is concerned that the law could give rise to a new breed of developers who would capitalise on other people's investment in R&D, effectively forcing the copyright owners out of business.
"If people are able to decompile our products and look at algorithms and methodologies that we use, it could lead to a bunch of clone-type products and effectively undermine us in the market place," he complains.
"We've put millions of dollars worth of effort into developing those products and giving someone an opportunity to access that through a simple cut and paste process could destroy our business."
Yet, according to Brown's fellow developer, David Bennett, technical director of Melbourne-based developer Powerflex, such negative reaction can only come from people who are afraid of competition.
"Nobody is getting hurt by this law," Bennett claims.
"It encourages competition and allows people to fix their software problems quicker. These changes will encourage competition, they recognise what is already an established practice in Europe and the US and they encourage the development of compatible software."
The last point is particularly important to Bennet whose company has been accused of stealing code from a competitor in order to develop a competitive product, the allegations that Bennett dismisses as false.
"We have been accused of copying someone else's code, which we didn't do, and we had not undertaken any decompilation or disassembly because of the uncertainty of the law. It wasn't necessary, but we did create a competitive product. So, in view of our recent experiences, my response to the Copyright Act changes is positive, as they will bring Australia into line with what is already an established practice elswhere."
While it is not known when the changes will be introduced, their introduction could come particularly handy when it comes to the Y2K compliance, as they would allow companies to "debug" the software that they paid a licence fee for.