As it stands the UK implements an EU law which prevents the reverse engineering of proprietary software with few exceptions, could this change once we leave the EU?


There are two kinds of EU laws: regulations and directives.

  • Regulations have direct effect throughout the EU, which helps harmonize the laws of the Single Market.
  • Directives instruct the member states to implement their own laws to some effect, which helps adapt the laws to that member state's circumstances.

Reverse engineering is the subject of the EU Computer Programs Directive. As a directive it has no direct effect in the UK. The directive was implemented by amending the UK's Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

The Copyright Act is UK law, created by parliament and not the EU. It will continue to be in effect even after a Brexit.

Note that many EU regulations also have corresponding passages in UK law, for example the Data Protection Act 2018 mirrors the GDPR. And per the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, all relevant EU laws will be transformed into domestic UK law upon exit day, including the principle of supremacy of (ex-)EU law over domestic law. That way, the regulatory environment doesn't suddenly change. So even if reverse engineering were the subject of an EU regulation, it would continue to apply after Brexit and would supersede pre-Brexit UK laws to the contrary.

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  • Given current events, an "orderly" Brexit would seem to be a contradiction in terms. If such a thing is going to happen, it won't be in the immediate future. – Kevin Aug 30 '19 at 0:09
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    @kevin even in a hard brexit the data protection act remains in force. – Shazamo Morebucks Aug 30 '19 at 2:23
  • Kevin. U.K. civil service has been working on the problem since July 2016. They had a deadline of March 2019. So I expect them to have replacements for all the EU regulations ready on October 31st. And these replacements will become law when the U.K. leaves the EU, with or without a deal. It’s a purely internal British matter. – gnasher729 Aug 30 '19 at 7:38
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    The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 'enables the transposition of directly-applicable already-existing EU law into UK law,[2] and so "create a new category of domestic law for the United Kingdom: retained EU law."' This will happen whatever the nature of any Brexit. After that, Parliament will be able to amend or repeal any retained EU law. – Steve Melnikoff Aug 30 '19 at 8:35
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    @SteveMelnikoff they'll also be able to amend domestic law that formerly implemented EU directives, including the Copyright Act. But the chance that they'll amend it to make significant changes to restrictions on reverse engineering seems quite remote indeed. People in the UK complained about a few EU regulations, and those are probably likely to be changed, but this one wasn't among them as far as I'm aware. – phoog Aug 30 '19 at 15:10

As you correctly formulated:

UK implements an EU law

which essentially means: It is a directive of the EU.

There are (at least) two kinds of EU laws to be distinguished:

  • directives have to be implemented, that is written into national law. Member states have to pass these laws.
  • regulations take effect immediately, without needing to be passed as national law.

The law about reverse engineering is a directive. So, it is a UK-implemented law, valid in the UK, independend from remaining in the EU.

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    There are differences between EU regulations and EU directives. EU regulations have direct effect, and do not require a member state "to pass laws on its own to meet the laws of the EU." – phoog Aug 30 '19 at 15:12
  • @phoog Thanks for pointing this out. English is not my mother tongue, of course I was aware of "Richtlinien" and "Verordnungen" ;-) – rexkogitans Aug 30 '19 at 16:07
  • You're welcome. I've changed my vote. In this case, since the subject of the question is a directive, the UK would be free to change its law to be incompatible with the directive after it leaves the EU (unless of course by some post-Brexit agreement it were to commit itself to honoring any directive). I'm not aware of any suggestion that this is likely with regard to reverse engineering software, but it already underway in the area of immigration law, in the case of directive 2004/38/EC concerning freedom of movement of EU citizens and their family members. – phoog Aug 30 '19 at 17:37
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    But then "free movement" is an area that the Brexiteers mostly want to change. Nobody ever said "we should leave the EU because reverse engineering isn't allowed". – gnasher729 Aug 31 '19 at 14:34
  • I think it mostly depends on how popular the topic is. Ask 100 random people about migration, and ask them about reverse engineering. Most people won't even know what that is. – rexkogitans Aug 31 '19 at 14:36

The UK has implemented EU directives, and EU regulations are automatically law in the UK. There are preparations so that all the EU regulations, which will cease to be law in the UK the moment the UK leaves the EU, will all be replaced by equivalent UK laws at the same moment.

So apart from possibly mistakes in that process, and slightly changed wording in some of the replacement laws for EU regulations, the laws in the UK one second after Brexit will be the same as one second before Brexit.

After Brexit, the UK is obviously free to change any UK laws. If they want to change the laws about reverse engineering of proprietary software, then they can and probably will. If they don't want to change those laws, they won't. I haven't heard any big complaints from politicians about these laws, so they might stay unchanged for quite a while.

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