from the not-very-sweet,-not-very-clever dept
One of the most important recent developments in the world of diabetes has been the arrival of relatively low-cost continuous blood glucose monitors. These allow people with diabetes to take frequent readings of their blood sugar levels without needing to use painful finger sticks every time. That, in turn, allows users to fine-tune their insulin injections, with big health benefits for both the short- and long-term. The new devices can be read by placing a smartphone close to them. People use an app that gathers the data from the unit, which is typically placed on the back of the upper arm with an adhesive.
One of the long-awaited technological treatments for diabetes is the “closed-loop” system, also called an “artificial pancreas”. Here, readings from a continuous glucose device are used to adjust an insulin pump in response to varying blood sugar levels — just as the pancreas does. The idea is to free those with diabetes from needing to monitor their levels all the time. Instead, software with appropriate algorithms does the job in the background.
Closed-loop systems are still being developed by pharma companies. In the meantime, many people have taken things into their own hands, and built DIY artificial pancreas systems from existing components, writing the control code themselves. One popular site for sharing help on the topic is Diabettech, with “information about [continuous glucose monitoring] systems, DIY Closed Loops, forthcoming insulins and a variety of other aspects.”
A few months back there was a post on Diabettech about some code posted to GitHub. A patch to Abbott Laboratories’ LibreLink app allowed data from the same company’s FreeStyle Libre continuous monitor to be accessed by other apps running on a smartphone. In particular, it enabled the blood-sugar data to be used by a program called xDrip, which provides “sophisticated charting, customization and data entry features as well as a predictive simulation model.” Innocent enough, you might think. But not according to Abbott Laboratories, which sent in the legal heavies waving the DMCA:
It has come to Abbott’s attention that a software project titled “Libre2-patched-App” has been uploaded to GitHub, Inc.’s (“GitHub”) website and creates unauthorized derivative works of Abbott’s LibreLink program (the “Infringing Software”). The Infringing Software is available at https://github.com/user987654321resu/Libre2-patched-App. In addition to offering the Infringing Software, the project provides instructions on how to download the Infringing Software, circumvent Abbott’s technological protection measures by disassembling the LibreLink program, and use the Infringing Software to modify the LibreLink program.
The patch is no longer available on GitHub. The original Diabettech post suggested that analyzing the Abbott app was permitted under EU law (pdf):
Perhaps surprisingly, this seems to be covered by the European Software Directive in article 6 which was implemented in member states years back, which allows for decompilation of the code by a licensed user in order to enable interoperability with another application (xDrip in this case).
As Cory Doctorow points out in his discussion of these events, in the US the DMCA has a similar exemption for reverse engineering:
a person who has lawfully obtained the right to use a copy of a computer program may circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a particular portion of that program for the sole purpose of identifying and analyzing those elements of the program that are necessary to achieve interoperability of an independently created computer program with other programs, and that have not previously been readily available to the person engaging in the circumvention, to the extent any such acts of identification and analysis do not constitute infringement under this title.
Legal issues aside, there is a larger point here. As the success of open source software over the last twenty years has shown, one of the richest stores of new ideas for a product is its user community. Companies that embrace that group are able to draw on what is effectively a global research and development effort. Abbott is not just wrong to bully people looking to derive greater benefit from its products by extending them in interesting ways, it is extremely stupid. It is throwing away the enthusiasm and creativity of the very people it should be supporting and working with as closely as it can.