Copyright protection of algorithms does not prevent the disclosure of their source code in the context of administrative proceedings

Algorithms are often used for managing complex administrative proceedings where multiple data and parameters have to be analysed to produce a result. Since algorithms can be protected under copyright laws as software (including their source code), it is questionable whether copyright protection might limit the right to access of interested parties in administrative proceedings. In two recent cases (here and here), the Italian Administrative Court of Lazio (TAR Lazio) has clarified the nature of the electronic administrative document and the scope of the right to access pursuant to Law n. 241/1990 with regard to the source code of an algorithm compiled by a software house on request by the Public Administration. The cases at stake have been promoted by a number of Italian trade unions against the Ministry of University and Education (“MUIR”) with the purposes of gaining access to the source code of the algorithm used by MUIR to manage the territorial relocation of school professors under mobility procedures.

Upon first request, the MUIR refused access to the source code of the algorithm developed by a software house on MUIR’s request on basis of the following arguments: (i) the source code itself cannot be considered part of the electronic administrative document and, consequently, does not imply the right to access of interested parties in administrative proceedings, and (ii) the source code enjoys the copyright protection as software and the access to the source code would prejudice the intellectual property rights of the software house. More in detail, MUIR has held that the disclosure of a document describing the way of functioning of the algorithm could be considered sufficient protection for the trade unions and that the Legislative Decree n. 97/2016 (Art. 6) on the civic right to access (for preventing corruption and enhancing transparency in the public sector) expressly excludes access to the acts of the Public Administration when the access could prejudice the economic interest of private parties, thus included their intellectual property rights.

In the Administrative Court’s opinion, the MUIR must allow access to the source code of the algorithm since it can be considered part of the administrative proceeding subject to the right to access of interested parties. MUIR has requested the software house to compile the algorithm with the specific purpose of managing in electronic form the public procedure of territorial relocation of school professors under mobility, according to public rules and collective employment agreements. From a structural point of view, the outputs of the algorithm: (i) are the results of the combination/elaboration of data collected in various endoprocedural acts and (ii) make application of the public rules on territorial mobility.

Taking into consideration the ratio of the right to access in administrative procedures, also the source code of the algorithm enjoys the nature of electronic administrative document and such nature implies that right to access should be allowed also with regards to algorithm. Reasoning to the contrary will lead to the unacceptable consequense that the right to access could be automatically excluded by decision of the Public Administration to manage the administrative proceeding by electronic means. TAR Lazio further clarified the notion of electronic administrative document which, in the Court’s opinion, should not include only those administrative documents formed via electronic means (for the purpose of documentation) but should also include those administrative documents where the elaboration of contents and data (for the purpose of issuing an output) are taken into account.

Also the copyright protection of software (which encompasses also the source code) has not been considered by the Court as an argument for excluding the right to access to the algorithm. First of all, TAR Lazio acknowledges that software can be protected under copyright laws not only as an informatic language but also as a creative work resulting from the use of a certain informatic language. In the case at stake, the algorithm is a software created for a specific purpose of the Public Administration and, in the absence of any indication to the contrary in the agreement between the PA and software house, can be assumed that the software house has transferred to the PA all the economic rights in the algorithm. In the Court’s opinion, the nature of creative work of the algorithm should not interfere with the right to access in the administrative proceedings of interested parties, since the right to access does not prejudice the right to exploitation of intellectual properties (any reproduction made by the interested parties is functional to the exercise of rights to control the administrative proceeding only and not to the commercial exploitation of the algorithm).

In addition, TAR LAZIO considered that is not relevant for excluding the right to access to the source code of the algorithm the fact that: (i) the source code is a pure informatic language unreadable by the public officers and written by a private company (i.e. the software house on behalf of the PA) and (ii) the source code is compiled for the mere application of public rules and collective labour agreements, which are accessible themselves even without direct access to the source code. The Court ruled in favour of the right to access to the source code also on the basis that what impact the giuridical position of private individuals are the outputs of the algorithm.

These interesting administrative rulings offer a clear and deep reconstruction of the notion of electronic administrative document (expanding such notion to include also algorithms) but should be subject to further analysis with regards to the asserted strike of balance between the right to access and the protection under copyright laws of the source code, exspecially taking into consideration possible future cases where the PA should make use of algorithms: (a) not specifically developed for a single administrative proceeding (under the assumption of a complete transfer of intellectual property rights) and/or (b) based on more sophisticated technologies licensed to the PA under a proprietary scheme.

Gianluca Campus

TAR Lazio, case No.  3742/2017, 21 March 2017, CISL, UIL, SNALS Vs MUIR (President of the Court: Hon. R. Savoia; Judge-Rapporteur Hon. M.C. Quiligotti)

TAR Lazio, case No.  3769/2017, 22 March 2017, Gilda Vs MUIR (President of the Court: Hon. R. Savoia; Judge-Rapporteur Hon. M.C. Quiligotti)

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