Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Breath Machine Source Code Lawsuit in Minnesota

I blogged a few months back about the running controversy about breath testing machines used by police in drinking/driving cases.

The state of Minnesota has recently filed suit against the manufacturer of its breath testing machines.

Apart from the obvious issues over whether a criminal defendant should have a right to see the source code in the machine used to convict him/her, the suit brings out a point I hadn't thought of yet. Apparently, the state is claiming that the source code is owned by the state of Minnesota based on a contract it wrote with this manufacturer some years ago -- And therefore the manufacturer's acts are alleged to be infringement of the state's copyrights! It certainly would not surprise me to find out the contract says exactly what is alleged in the complaint, given the way the typical government contract is drafted (and the typical process whereby the company, desperate to make the sale, goes along with what the state demands). (Editor's note: I have no personal knowledge or stake in this matter!) Thus, we may not only use this new case to develop a policy on disclosure of source code in crime-testing equipment, but also to show us what really happens when those onerous work-for-hire contract terms actually come out of the drawer and get reviewed a few years later!

And, I bet this won't be limited to breath testing machines. For example, most new cars have computers on board that are connected to GPS systems and other position-spotting equipment which can be used to prove where we were (or weren't) or how fast we might have been going, etc. The manufacturers of those computers may be facing this same issue in the near future. I'm sure anybody taking five minutes could come up with a list of many other future battles over the machines that are used to convict us of crimes. (If you're willing, take a shot in the comments below on what you think the next battlegrounds might be! This is not limited to cars and how we drive them by the way. How about the cell phone hanging off of your belt right now?)

Fasten your seat belts.