CSC says that it cannot give away or donate the code for its three primary care software systems without incurring legal obligations.

Attendees at the iSoft User Group conference last week were told that while making the code available under an open source license would be theoretically possible, there are a host of practical difficulties – including liability for clinical safety – that would have to be overcome.

CSC has decided to cease support for its primary care systems, Premiere, Synergy and Ganymede by 31 October next year.

Current users have a choice of systems to switch to under the national GP Systems of Choice agreement.

In his opening presentation to the conference, iSUG chair Dr John Lockley said that CSC had advised that following September’s announcement it will be unable to give the code away, place it into escrow or make it available under an open source license.

He told the audience that the demise of the systems was the predictable result of ten years of under-investment, first by Torex, then iSoft and now CSC.

Lack of support and development saw market share dwindle to about 440 practices.

Dr Lockley said CSC had advised it was unable to give the code for its GP systems away without any party who then further developed the code becoming liable under TUPE to “take on the employment rights” of CSC staff “who were employed on that asset."

“Therefore, anyone buying Premiere or Synergy off CSC (even for as little as a pound) and then working on it would, under the TUPE regulations, also have to take over the employment rights of staff working on these programmes,” he said.

“Believe it or not, CSC isn’t even allowed to give the software to the NHS for free – even though the NHS has been paying for the software for many years – unless the NHS also takes over these large TUPE responsibilities.”

With CSC retiring its products it will presumably either redeploy or make redundant the staff in question, meaning the TUPE issue will eventually taper off.

On the second possibility of CSC making the code available under an open sourcing license Dr Lockley advised that it would be “technically feasible” for the company to make the code available under some form of open sourcing license if they chose to.

“However, whilst there are some notable examples of this being done with commercial products, it has never been done with an existing product in the primary healthcare arena.

"And there would be a lot of major considerations, not least the liability for clinical safety that would have to be explored before doing this.”

The iSUG chair added: “Even if the company had the will to do this, it would not be a quick or straightforward process.”

As a result, Dr Lockley said he saw no way out of the current situation.

He warned that those people planning what will follow GPSoC must learn from this experience and ensure any future arrangements ensure code is not taken away from loyal users.

“We were considerably disturbed to find that users would not have access to the Synergy code under the escrow agreement, and that there was no way we could acquire access to continue using the code for clinical purposes.”

He said the problem appeared to lie with employment law rather than CSC, and that there needed to be a change in the current position.

“There needs to be a mechanism by which the NHS can take over responsibility for software if any provider company decides not to continue producing that software or its upgrade, or decides not to continue to make it available in the UK,” explained Dr Lockley.

“Bearing in mind that currently no-one in the UK can then access the code, the NHS should be able to take over the code and use it in whatever way they see fit – perhaps turning it into open source software, or handing it to another body to develop and continue.”