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How to Deal With Stolen Code?

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 6 years ago | from the delicate-situations dept.

Programming 799

greenrom writes "I work for a small company as a software developer. While investigating a bug in one of our products, I found source code on a website that was nearly identical to code used in our product. Even the comments were the same. It's obvious that a developer at our company found some useful code on the web and copied it. The original author didn't attach any particular license to the code. It's just 200 lines of code the author posted in a forum. Is it legitimate to use source code that's publicly available but doesn't fall under any particular license? If not, what's the best way to deal with this kind of situation? Since I'm now the only person working on this code, there's no practical way to report the situation confidentially. I'm new to the company, and the developer who copied the code is the project lead. Reporting him to management doesn't seem like a good career move. I could rewrite the copied code without reporting him, but since the product is very close to release it would be difficult to make a significant change without providing some justification."

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799 comments

Uhhhhh (1, Insightful)

blaster151 (874280) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508473)

> Is it legitimate to use source code that's publicly available but doesn't fall under any particular license?

Of course it is. This kind of thing happens all the time.

Frankly, I'm glad you don't work for us. The fact that you would consider "rewriting" code that works well just because it was written by someone external to your company doesn't speak well for your sense of business priorities or usage of time.

> The original author didn't attach any particular license to the code.

I think that says it all.

Re:Uhhhhh (0, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508505)

This kind of thing happens all the time.

So does downloading music.

The original author didn't attach any particular license to the code.

I think that says it all.


I don't see any particular license on the mp3 files either.

Re:Uhhhhh (5, Informative)

show me altoids (1183399) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508571)

If the author of the code posted it in a forum, I would personally call that implicit permission to use the code. Otherwise, why even post it? To show off his great coding ability? Every programmer (myself included) does this all the time and I have never heard of "Forum police" going after them. As to the legality of downloading it, if it is showing in your browser window, you have already downloaded it.

Re:Uhhhhh (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508973)

You don't know that the poster had permission to post the code in the first place.

Re:Uhhhhh (5, Insightful)

caerwyn (38056) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508611)

Ahh... technically speaking, this could be very bad advice in the business arena. While I'm not a lawyer, AFAIK code is copyrighted at the act of creation, and simply by making it available for viewing the author is not automatically giving up those rights. While it is highly unlikely that such a code snippet would cause problems down the road, it is not impossible that it could.

Rewriting simply because it was written external to the company isn't a good thing. Rewriting because it was written external to the company and you're not certain of your company's license to legally make use of the code is an *entirely* different thing.

The author not attaching a particular license to the code is not a blanket license to do with as you will. The author may have intended that, but I don't believe it's true in the legal sense.

It might make more sense to go as you're suggesting, but given the mess that is current copyright law, a business ought to tread more carefully.

Re:Uhhhhh (5, Insightful)

morgan_greywolf (835522) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508617)

Um, no. If you want to be technical, if there's no license attached to the code, then you can't use it. Copyright happens on an original work from the time it's published. There are no notice requirements. Without a license, you don't have permission to use the work.

Now, in reality, the author posted it to a forum, probably with the intention of giving away the code. It would be entirely up to the author to sue and whether the author would sue or not -- well, I kinda doubt it.

But, if I were you, OP, I'd check with your company's legal department and/or an attorney. Asking questions like this on Slashdot is likely to result in you getting a lot of misinformation.

Re:Uhhhhh (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508745)

Note that short code segments have often been found to be uncopyrightable. It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it's often difficult to claim copyright to less than ~ 10K LOC outside the USA.

Re:Uhhhhh (3, Interesting)

morgan_greywolf (835522) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508901)

Note that short code segments have often been found to be uncopyrightable. It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it's often difficult to claim copyright to less than ~ 10K LOC outside the USA.
> 10,000 lines of code? You have to be kidding me. By that definition, there quite a few open source apps that aren't copyrightable.

Re:Uhhhhh (5, Insightful)

TheWanderingHermit (513872) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508919)

I'd also consider the possibility that you don't know the whole story. I found a version of some well known C code for Java and wanted to be sure, before I included it in a FOSS project, that even though it's based on a mathematical algorithm and that the code for that function in other languages has been published in many FOSS programs, that I could include the code in a FOSS project. In the long run, I tracked it down through several people and basically nobody cared what it was included in and I don't think anyone even wanted to bother to license it. In the long run I kept all the emails and notified the project owner. We did make mention of it in the comments, but didn't feel it appropriate to include any guess at licensing info.

It's possible the project head already has permission to use it or may even know the programmer who posted the code to the forum. There could be any number of legit reasons why nothing was said about it in the code comments. It's even possible that post was made my the project leader under a different name.

To me, this sounds like the OP is a quite young programmer who is looking for a chance to lead a moral crusade rather than get the job done. In my experience I avoid taking on employees like that because they seem more focused on making sure everyone else follows their ethics than in doing a good job on the task at hand.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

superwiz (655733) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508943)

Now, in reality, the author posted it to a forum, probably with the intention of giving away the code. It would be entirely up to the author to sue and whether the author would sue or not -- well, I kinda doubt it.
Are you sure now? Because the terms of service of the forum might claim copyright of all posts. In general, letters sent by post are considered property of the recipient. So a statement made for public consumption might be considered property of the public. Otherwise, what is to stop FDR family from claiming copyright on the phrase "we have nothing to fear by fear itself"? I am not a lawyer. Are you?

Original Author?? (1)

hemp (36945) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508967)

Now, in reality, the author posted it to a forum, probably with the intention of giving away the code. It would be entirely up to the author to sue and whether the author would sue or not -- well, I kinda doubt it.

Umm..how do you know this guy is the original author and didn't himself lift it from another site?

That to me is the danger in not using in house code. You never know who the original author is it.

Re:Uhhhhh (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508625)

The problem is the question has two parts.

1. Could this (legally) be a problem?

        Ans: Consult a lawyer to be sure. Everything in the US automatically has copyright attached. What the requirements are in such a case may not be well defined - if it is the question definitely needs a sound legal answer.

2. Would this (practially) be a problem?

        Ans: Probably not, if the author posted it in a context where it was pretty clear he didn't have a concern with reuse (e.g. answering someone a question on how to do X). It's only a problem if someone bugs you about it, really. The legal part in #1 basically boils down to "if we were sued and we fought it out, would we win or lose?" From one standpoint, having to fight the lawsuit in the first place is already a loss...

Re:Uhhhhh (4, Insightful)

danlyke (149938) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508651)

If there's a question on the license, then I think it's totally reasonable for ScuttleMonkey to go to his project lead and say "I'm uncomfortable that we don't have an explicit license for this code, we need to contact the original author and obtain a license or an acknowledgement of a release to the public domain".

I don't attach a license or explicit release to every piece of code I've posted to forums or newsgroups or what-have-you over the years, and I have had every expectation that many of those would get copied and pasted into applications without attribution. I'd prefer it if, when that stuff ended up inside an app, there were a note saying "here's the original source" because when I've stumbled across such code it's sometimes made it easier to figure out what it's supposed to be doing, but I don't expect it.

If ScuttleMonkey has an indication that the original license is not something that allows incorporation into the code, then it's totally reasonable to escalate this one over the lead's head early on, but it sounds like this was something picked up off a site like CodeProject.com, where it's completely reasonable to assume that the intent of the poster was that this code be incorporated and adapted without further license terms.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

alecu2 (1170597) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508711)

It was not ScuttleMonkey who wrote the parent post. greenrom did it. ScuttleMonkey just posted it into slashdot's homepage.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

mrjimorg (557309) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508657)

If someone posted it in a forum, it's unlikely that they just wrote it on the spot. He more likely copied it from somewhere where it was used (or at least compiled). The question is where did that author get it? You might want to check a couple of places such as related open source projects to make sure that it wasn't copied from open source, else you may be inadvertantly violating license agreements. After doing this, I'd think that you were probably ok - if ever in court you could recount the steps you took. Although, I'm not a lawyer, so take this advice with a grain of salt

Re:Uhhhhh (4, Insightful)

IceCreamGuy (904648) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508683)

The guy is asking a question because he's apparently new to the business and wants some sage advice from people like you who know what they're doing. People aren't born with this information, the only way to get it is either to screw up or ask somebody, and he decided that it was a good idea to ask first. Frankly (if that is your real name), however, I wouldn't put much weight into your vague response even if it wasn't condescending and derisive.

Re:Uhhhhh (4, Funny)

Selfbain (624722) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508685)

Is your hairstyle distinctively pointy by any chance?

Re:Uhhhhh (2, Insightful)

Thyamine (531612) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508709)

Yes, it's terrible to think that someone may consider ethical problems in a business situation. That perhaps he wants to do the right thing, needs some clarification, and doesn't want to get the company or himself in trouble.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

AlexBirch (1137019) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508753)

I could rewrite the copied code without reporting him
IANAL but rewriting the code doesn't do anything. I remember Bruce Perens and others asking anyone who looked at the stolen MS code not to contribute to Open Source Software.

The only bigger waste of time of rewriting the source code is reading /.

I believe things are by default in the public domain, unless someone has Copyrighted it.

Re:Uhhhhh (4, Informative)

Jherico (39763) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508759)

>> Is it legitimate to use source code that's publicly available but doesn't fall under any particular license?

>Of course it is. This kind of thing happens all the time.

This may be completely commonplace, but it is certainly not legal. Simply posting something in a public place does NOT put it in the public domain, and contrary to what many people in this forum are saying, failing to attach a copyright notification to something does NOT place it in the public domain either. Assuming the author posted the information after 1976 and is covered by american law, then the copyright act of 1976 provides for automatic copyright protections, unless there is some notification which explicitly puts it under a license which permits it use.

The original poster will probably never be called out if he leaves the situation as it stands he is still breaking the law. His options for avoiding this are to either find another copy of the code which is listed under a license, contact the author and ask for a license, or to rewrite the code.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

alfs boner (963844) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508779)

Frankly, I'm glad you don't work for us.

You're probably a supervisor at a Best Buy in some shitty flyover state. I'm glad I don't work for you either. You should have gone to college.

Re:Uhhhhh (4, Insightful)

SheldonYoung (25077) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508789)

> Is it legitimate to use source code that's publicly available but doesn't fall under any particular license?

Of course it is. This kind of thing happens all the time.
So does fraud, burglery and worse but it doesn't mean it's legal.

Frankly, I'm glad you don't work for us. The fact that you would consider "rewriting" code that works well just because it was written by someone external to your company doesn't speak well for your sense of business priorities or usage of time.
Nobody in their right mind would ever purchase your services or products again. They would not rewrite the code because it was created externally, they would rewrite it because legally and ethically they have not been given rights to use the code. I would not do business with anybody who would knowingly use code of dubious license.

> The original author didn't attach any particular license to the code.

I think that says it all. Yes, that means they have no license to the code and must ask for one. End of story.

Re:Parent Doesn't Understand How Copyright Works (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508815)

Not attaching a license in no way affects the copyright ownership of the code. The original author has a copyright on the code in your product. I the parent poster of this thread has no idea how copyright works. It isn't like a patent, where disclosure prior to filing the patent puts it in the public domain. All works have an implicit copyright. It might be crazy, but it is true.

The legal liability of having stolen code in a released product should greatly outweigh the cost of rewriting a 200 line code segment (single digit hours of coding). Knowingly infringing on the copyright of the code is a huge risk.

In my opinion you'd be crazy to knowingly allow this code into your release.

Of course, there is also the big question of how much more infringing code is in your release that you don't already know about... how to deal with that seems like a much more difficult question.

Re:Uhhhhh (4, Insightful)

mce (509) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508823)

>> The original author didn't attach any particular license to the code.
> I think that says it all.

Yes, but it does not say what you seem to imply. If the original author did not grant permission, you can not use the code (but you can implement the same algorithm yourself, at least as long as there is no patent preventing that). Note that the author does not have to include such a permission in every piece of code. It can be in an accompanying file, or it can even be in the Terms of Use of whatever bulletin board or website he used to publish it. But you have to check that.

Granted, as long as you do not distribute the source, nobody will spot a 200 line piece of code and this kind of copying indeed happens all the time, but that does not make it legal in the strict sense of the word. I once wanted to use a small library that is floating about out there without any license/copyright statement. As it would have been possible for our customers to spot the use, I checked with our legal department and they were very firm: if I could get the author to explicitly approve it, it was OK, otherwise not. He did not reply, so I had to scrap the idea.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

TechWolfy (1088703) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508829)

He still took the time to weigh the aspects of what is the ethically correct thing to do. He is new and quite possibly not aware of all legal jargon that applies to all situations. Your attitude suggests that you put business before ethics, something that should be frowned upon.

Re:Uhhhhh (0, Flamebait)

Suicyco (88284) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508831)

Absolutely right. This is programming. If programmers are constantly reinventing the wheel, they are idiots. What about standard libraries, etc?

Code is meant to be reused. Thats why people put it out there.

Man, if the original poster worked for me, he wouldn't for long. Thats the exact type of programmer that you DONT want, someone wasting precious time and resources rewriting code thats been written a million times before.

Re:Uhhhhh (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508907)

This isn't about reinventing the wheel. It is about using code you don't own. "Not reinventing the wheel" is NOT a valid excuse for using code without permission. This guy is exactly the person you DO want working for you, an ethical one. Oh, and by the way, YOU are the idiot.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

JustShootMe (122551) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508933)

And I wouldn't work for you. Any boss that puts that little weight on ethics is probably cutting corners on other things that are at the very least not healthy for the company and at the very most could be detrimental to future job security.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

elcheesmo (646907) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508835)

The problem is that you don't know the origin of the code. The person who posted the code on the forum isn't guaranteed to be the author. He or she could have taken the code out of a book, another website, or decompiled it from a non-OSS library. And what if the code was taken from a GPLed project? Using external code of an unknown pedigree is always a bad idea.

Hope the author's not the vindictive type... (1)

gillbates (106458) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508859)

Just because it's on the web, even without any particular license, doesn't mean it's free for the taking.

It's kind of like the online magazine. Sure, you can view their web pages, but try republishing them and you'll find yourself in quite a bit of legal hot water.

The author might not think his code is worth that much, but as soon as it shows up in a commercial product, he might change his mind. Because he hasn't granted the company explicit permission to use it, he could sue for copyright infringement.

Granted, IANAL, but it seems like a rather foolish thing to expose yourself to a potential $150,000 in statutory damages for a mere 200 lines of code. Most competent coders could rewrite that in a week, if not a day.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

linzeal (197905) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508883)

Do not listen to parent. It is stupid to use code without permission from the author if there is no license.

First off, there is the legal issues that can arise when you publish your web page. If said code is just floating in the nether of the web, you have NO IDEA who actually wrote the code. It could be copied many times over. You might end up with a fortune 500 company breathing down your neck. A lot of code used internally on the company's private Intraweb turns up on the internet.

Secondly, you do not know if this code is being used to troll for lawsuits. I can't reveal companies but a networking company I worked for got in this situation with a former developer who lured the company's lead developer to use code he had emailed him in a private email exchange a year after he left the company. 3 months later and they pulled all of the development computers in one feel swoop.

My suggestion is this. Tell the fuckwad that stole the code that you know. Use it to blackmail him. That is how business works.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

imgod2u (812837) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508893)

Materials found on the internet, where patents and copyrights are concerned, are not considered information in the public domain. Those who use it are therefore liable for patent/copyright infringement. That being said, the base amount of protection (automatic protection) provided by the current copyright and patent laws are fairly limited I think.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

king-manic (409855) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508937)

Of course it is. This kind of thing happens all the time.

Frankly, I'm glad you don't work for us. The fact that you would consider "rewriting" code that works well just because it was written by someone external to your company doesn't speak well for your sense of business priorities or usage of time.
Remember a few stories back Sony got in trouble for you are proposing as the best alternative? Yeah it's not a very good idea. It may cause a endless litany of trouble. Remember Rambus, how they "seemed" to give away a lot of designs at a conference which was then implemented and then litigated? there is numerous cases of this. It often goes unnoticed but when it is noticed it's trouble. I'm sure many people are guilty of borrowing small code snippets but 200 lines might be pushing it. a 10 line function maybe just borrowing an algorithm and any resemblance merely coincidental but 200 lines would be noticed and more likely litigated successfully.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508951)

jsut for the sake of argument, if this code were GPLed and posted without notice of this and your company incorporates it into their own proprietary software is it fair use of the code, after all you didn't know it was GPLed and it was posted in plain sight.

Re:Uhhhhh (1)

MaceyHW (832021) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508959)

Copyright attaches the moment you write something down, so there's no question that the original poster has a copyright in the code. Depending on the nature of the forum in which the code was posted and the context of the post itself, there may be an argument for an implied license, but that's a pretty hairy question.

I can help (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508491)

I'm a lawyer. Please contact me about suing some people for lots of money.

Ask a lawyer, not Slashdot (1, Insightful)

sconeu (64226) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508495)

n/t.

Bigger problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508511)

Lead: How does the code work?

Developer: I don't know.

Well... (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508519)

No license == normal copyright rules apply. You can't do anything with it unless the author gives you permission (licenses do this). What you need to do is either 1) Replace the offending code or 2) Contact the author and find out what the terms on the code are / negotiate a deal.

MOD UP, Correct answer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508671)

Mod the parent up. It is the correct answer.

Of course, in the real world, you always have Option 3) Ignore it, move on with life.

This is actually the incorrect answer, but as many people have pointed out it really isn't morally reprehensible and you'll probably get away with it.

You could ask politely (5, Informative)

davidwr (791652) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508763)

To the original poster:

If your company want to be completely honest and above-board and legal, it must ask if it's okay to use the code. If the author says no or demand$ too much, you must not use it.

Unless you are fortunate enough to get a fast "sure, go ahead and use it" you will miss your deadline. Sometimes a little cash - maybe as little as the amount of man-hours it would take you to rewrite and test it - will be enough to expedite getting permission.

By the way, for all you know, the tech lead did ask permission, or the tech lead knows the code is already been dedicated to the public domain.

If it were me, I'd talk to the tech lead. If the tech lead doesn't have permission already and isn't willing to go to management and do The Right Thing (TM), I'd start circulating your resume and talk to management about it. When you do talk to management, present them with options that are likely to 1) be acceptable to management and 2) get the product out the door as soon as possible.

Due dilligence and move on (1, Informative)

dedazo (737510) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508529)

If there is no copyright claim by the original author then I don't see what the problem is. AFAIK that means it's in the public domain (I'd check the website's disclaimer or terms of use though). Moreover, if the source code for your application is not being released, who the heck cares? It's not like you're shipping some GPL code or library that might nail you to the wall. And I would assume that the person who published it intended for it to be used? I guess I just don't see the problem here. I'm not sure you can even call it "stolen".

Personally I'd attach a clear comment to that piece of code that reads something like Seems to be derived from [TheUrl]; no license issues as far as I can see. Original adaptation by [YourLeadNameGoesHere] - [YourNameGoesHere] ([Today'sDate])

At least you'd be doing some due dilligence and making sure no one thinks you're the one who did the copy&paste job. In the unlikely even that there's a problem, at least you'd have something to fall back on that can be audited off your source control repository.

Applications are full of snippet'ed code copied from all over teh internets, much of which is technically in the public domain since no copyright is claimed (or practically enforced). I don't think anyone cares. Hell, I've seen people copy code from sites that were ripping off original authors on other sites (i.e, codeproject.com). The problem is when you incorporate large swaths of functionality and don't bother to follow the original licenses.

Re:Due dilligence and move on (5, Informative)

Nevo (690791) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508589)

If there is no copyright claim by the original author then I don't see what the problem is. AFAIK that means it's in the public domain....

You'd be wrong. (At least in the United States you would.)

From http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ1.html [copyright.gov] : "Copyright protection subsists from the time the work is created in fixed form. The copyright in the work of authorship immediately becomes the property of the author who created the work" and "The use of a copyright notice is no longer required under U.S. law...."

Re:Due dilligence and move on (2, Insightful)

EvanED (569694) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508603)

If there is no copyright claim by the original author then I don't see what the problem is. AFAIK that means it's in the public domain (I'd check the website's disclaimer or terms of use though)

You'd better take a refresher course in copyright law. The lack of a copyright notice means little; your creations are implicitly copyrighted.

I may agree with you elsewhere, but you are flat out wrong on that point.

Re:Due dilligence and move on (1)

dedazo (737510) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508649)

You're right, I shouldn't have used the term "public domain". I meant that the code would be freely usable without specific restrictions or conditions.

Re:Due dilligence and move on (1)

EvanED (569694) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508767)

Also likely not true. Without explicit permission your rights to use copyrighted work begin and end at fair use.

You could argue that this would be fair use, but I'd imagine it would be hard since it's in a commercial product and, it sounds like, copied entirely and without attribution.

Re:Due dilligence and move on (1)

Merk (25521) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508871)

Which isn't true either. You have zero right to copy it or use it in any way until the author gives you those permissions.

Re:Due dilligence and move on (1)

dedazo (737510) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508977)

It depends on the context. If we want to take this to extremes, I would argue that since the code was published as part of an article that details how to achieve something with [insert language/technology here] then implicit copyright (where none is claimed) does not also prohibit "fair use". That does not defeat or circumvent the original copyright in any way.

But I have no idea where this code was found or how it was obtained, so it's pointless to speculate.

Didn't Cory Doctorow or someone else publish an article a few days ago detailing how Joe Business violates copyright law to the tune of ninety bazillion dollars every other week by sending emails and scratching his ass? I think the submitter's question is just overreaction. He should just make a note of it and move on.

Re:Due dilligence and move on (4, Insightful)

Chuckstar (799005) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508701)

I like the idea of commenting the code and moving on.

Note, though, that posting code on a forum with no copyright notice does not put it in the public domain. IIRC, the lack of copyright notice means that the first move of the copyright owner can not be to sue you, they must first notify you of the violation and give you a chance to fix it. In other words, the law takes into consideration that without a copyright notice you might accidentally copy something you shouldn't and allows for the violator to fix the problem once notified.

So the worst case is that the copyright owner makes your company change the code at some point in the future. If you put the recommended comment in, your company will know (i) its not your fault and (ii) you were heads-up enough to look into the issue a little further when you noticed it.

Wrong! (At least outside US) (1, Interesting)

Psionicist (561330) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508713)

The United States is, as far as I know, the only country in the world where your work is not automatically copyrighted when published. I know for a fact that any code, text, images etc are posted from a European country it is automatically copyrighted, "(c)"-symbols or not. In Sweden for example it is actually discouraged to write "Copyright xyz" in your documents/works because it has no legal meaning and it confuses intellectual property law for the layman. So while you are probably correct if the copied code originates from somewhere in USA, the original poster's company is most certainly in violation of some intellectual property law if the code is from abroad.

Re:Wrong! (At least outside US) (1)

Cepper (235111) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508839)

"The United States is, as far as I know, the only country in the world where your work is not automatically copyrighted when published. "

This is incorrect, as other posters have stated in the US that the copyright is automatic in the creation of the work. No notice is needed.

Re:Due dilligence and move on (1)

SheldonYoung (25077) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508845)

Kudos for giving credit, but bad karma to you for completely misunderstanding copyright law. An item is copyright the instant it is created, even if no such copyright statement is present. Without an explicit license stating otherwise you have to assume you are NOT granted a license to use the work in any way.

Seriously people, many of your posts sound make you sound like high school kids copying each others homework. Have some pride in your work and the work of others.

Re:Due dilligence and move on (1)

Idaho (12907) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508925)

Is it legitimate to use source code that's publicly available but doesn't fall under any particular license?


No. In principle, because you don't own the copyright, you are not permitted it to use it in any way unless you obtain a license or written permission from the original author.

If not, what's the best way to deal with this kind of situation?


Have the same functionality rewritten by someone who did not see the original ("stolen") code.

If there is no copyright claim by the original author then I don't see what the problem is. AFAIK that means it's in the public domain


This is, of course, utter bullshit.

You don't need to "claim" copyright in any way to have it. Whenever you write anything, you automatically have the copyright on it. Whether enforcing it is feasible (or easy) is another matter, certainly it will help to prove it's yours by putting your name on it, yes.

In addition, things cannot end up "in the public domain" just because nobody put a copyright notice on it. The public domain is said to be the body of works of which the copyright has expired (i.e. which are written or published over 70 years ago). Apparently it is not even technically possible (according to copyright law, that is) to put things in the public domain by simply stating that they are; although such a written statement could probably be considered a license that allows anyone to do whatever they want with that code.

IANAL fortunately, so I may be slightly of on the details, but what you're stating above is utterly and completely wrong, that much I'm sure of.

Moreover, if the source code for your application is not being released, who the heck cares?


Hopefully you are aware that several GPL copyright cases (e.g. look at busybox) have been won (or settled because it was blatantly obvious they would be won otherwise) by looking at binaries only? For example, by looking at the strings contained in both binaries, or by testing the presence of identical undocumented command line options, features, or easter eggs.

That being said, I agree with the part that 200 lines is probably considered a trivial amount of code, you could also just write it over from a textbook or whatever, surely nobody is ever going to make a problem about it (that still doesn't mean it's OK btw, just that its very unlikely to get you into any kind of trouble). However it's also the principle of the thing. If copying 200 literal lines of code that you didn't write (and then putting your companies copyright on it) is OK, how about 500 lines? 1000? 2000? Where are you going to draw the line?

It's common sense (5, Insightful)

Fierythrasher (777913) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508539)

When I was in grad school for programming my instructor taught us how to search for the code we needed on the web.

Moreover in my professional career as a programmer I ran into several stumbling blocks where I couldn't figure something out. I'd google for code, or use helper sites like Tek-Tips where people could either correct my code or provide me new code.

I'm paid for results, not for originality. If people provide code on the web as tutorial purposes or just as a friendly piece of help then I would be going against my job to not use it.

Moreover, I ask: If you bought a book on, say, ASP and it had sample code that did exactly what you wanted, would you then rewrite that code so it was not what was in the book? Of course you wouldn't!

Re:It's common sense (1)

Nevo (690791) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508681)

I'm paid for results, not for originality.

Of course, your employer could be sued for your lack of originality. If you use others' work without their permission, that's a copyright violation. What's so hard to understand about that?

Small potatoes (4, Insightful)

crunzh (1082841) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508547)

If the author doesn't attach any license and it's "just" some code from a forum posting I don't see a problem with it. I have several times posted code samples in forums to help people, I would not mind that they where used in someones commercial program, if I minded I would have attached some for of license. If its posted on a forum to help somebody, the poster must know that it will be used.

Dunno; good question. (5, Insightful)

w3woody (44457) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508553)

Generally whenever I post code on an open forum in response to an answer, I assume the code will be used by other people and so I generally treat my own code as if I just put it into the public domain unless I've explicitly said otherwise.

However, that's not the law. I believe that the code an author publishes on an open forum is copyrighted by the author by default.

Me; I'd probably drop the guy a brief informal note asking permission to reuse the code and see what he does. More often than not if he's like me he'll probably say "sure, I don't mind."

Um... what? (0)

AdamTrace (255409) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508557)

"Is it legitimate to use source code that's publicly available but doesn't fall under any particular license?"

Yes.

But how do you know (5, Insightful)

GIL_Dude (850471) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508559)

How do you actually know that this happened? From what you posted it seems just as likely that the author of the code worked for your company and saw some question in a web forum, took some code that was the companies' property (developed on their time and their equipment) and posted it to the web forum to answer someone's question. Do you have any way to be sure that that isn't your own companies' code out there?

Re:But how do you know (1)

Glowing Fish (155236) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508853)

Or that the supervisor got it off of another forum, where someone said that it was there own work? Or, for that matter, that it was someone's original work on a different forum, and that the forum the original poster saw it on was taking it from that? Or so on.

That's not called stolen (1)

techpawn (969834) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508567)

That's called community driven development. There are only SO many ways to write something and sometimes a bit of community code works better than beating your head into the wall for weeks with a deadline looming.

Though, now it brings up a question of how they got to be a project lead.

Spilling the beans (3, Informative)

OctoberSky (888619) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508579)

If you really want to spill the beans on this guy and get people to notice that he "stole" the code, then play stupid and show the forum to your boss and say "Look this guy took our code and posted it on this website" They will put one and one together and see that it was your office that actually copied it. Then it's in their hands and you we attempting to protect the company.

Don't worry about the fact that the forum post was 4 months before you guys even started work on your project. In your haste to protect your companies IP you didn't realize you were the ones doing the copying.

Re:Spilling the beans (1)

Herkum01 (592704) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508819)

This is the correct approach. It does two things,

  • It appears that you did not make a decision AND,
  • Exposes the potential problem to someone who CAN make a decision.

This is one of those things that is unlikely to come back and bite you, (unless your boss also reads slashdot, then your screwed!)

Re:Spilling the beans (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508957)

This is the most insulated approach. Do not confuse that with the correct approach.

Immature artists imitate, mature artists steal (1)

alecu2 (1170597) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508583)

"Immature artists imitate, mature artists steal. -- Lionel Trilling"
That's the cookie that slashdot displayed (at the bottom of the page) while reading this article.

Coincidence? I don't think so.

IANAL (1)

overshoot (39700) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508595)

... however, you should be able to contact Corporate Counsel. It's a legal problem, let the lawyers deal with it.

On the other hand, if you don't do something about it, it could become your problem. Decisions, decisions ...

Don't sweat it (4, Insightful)

GlobalEcho (26240) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508597)

Don't sweat it. When I post code in a forum, I generally do so with the hope that other folks will find it useful, and the expectation that, if they do find it useful, they'll go ahead and copy it. If I want to make something available with a license and everything, I'll either put it on Sourceforge, or post a license in the comments. It's a safe bet the original author feels the same way.

Legally, it's not necessarily safe to copy long snippets from forums, but from practical and social points of view, I think this is much ado about nothing.

Practically speaking ... (1)

bdemchak (1099961) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508599)

... it sounds like the author probably did intend that it be used.

If it's the lynchpin of your product, you should consider rewriting it just so that you can say you actually own it. And to do that, you'll need to involve the project lead directly. It doesn't sound like that's the case, though.

Additionally, if you know the source URL, consider attaching it to the code as a comment. That way, if someone in your group wants to know more about it (e.g., context, limitations, etc) they know where to find it. This type of knowledge accumulation comes in real handy.

In the meantime, focus on creating value for your company ... that's probably more important at this point.

So buy a license (1)

Animats (122034) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508601)

Just write a memo, "We need a license for this code". It probably won't be very expensive.

Here's the policy on use of code snippets in O'Reilly books. [oreilly.com] They generally allow it, but require acknowledgement in the documentation.

An Answer (1)

prichardson (603676) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508613)

IANAL.

The code was published under no license, but by default it is owned by the author. Thus the author has all rights to control the copying of his work. In short, no the company has no right to use the code. The GPL and other OSS licenses allow the author to grant other people _more_ rights than they would normally have. The same is true for Creative Commons licenses. However, if this forum is a place where people discuss and help people with programming, one could argue that there is implied consent to reuse whatever is found there.

I think you should report him. If the code really is stolen, it could be a serious liability for a company.

I know what I'd do (0, Offtopic)

jollyreaper (513215) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508635)

I'd cut the head off of his favorite Bobba Fett doll and leave it in his bed for him to wake up next to. Either that or wrap a dead curry in newspaper and leave it on his doorstep. "Luca Brazzi codes with the Indians." And if nothing else, you could always take him fishing...

Use it (4, Insightful)

fhic (214533) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508659)

I do this all the time. My feeling is that code snippets posted in a public forum are meant to be be used by others unless it says not to. Yes, I recognize that this is at least theoretically contrary to US copyright laws. But if you don't want someone to use it, why post it? To show your brilliant code?

Since this specific case apparently bothers you, I think you should try to contact the author through some back-channel and get an explicit okay to use it. But I bet more than likely your request will be ignored or you'll get a "why the fsck are you asking such a dumb thing?" That's generally how I reply when someone asks me about code I've posted.

Cookbook programming (1)

bunratty (545641) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508665)

I've copied code from the Perl Cookbook and the PHP Cookbook. As far as I know, that code doesn't come with any license, and yet I would think the purpose of the code is to be copied and used as is or modified as needed. I would think the same would be true of code someone posted on a forum or mailing list. I'm surprised that anyone thinks copying the code would be a problem.

Re:Cookbook programming (2, Informative)

Nevo (690791) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508805)

Thankfully, your lack of knowledge (probably) isn't hurting you in this case:

Using Code Examples

This book is here to help you get your job done. In general, you may use the code in this book in your programs and documentation. You do not need to contact us for permission unless you're reproducing a significant portion of the code. For example, writing a program that uses several chunks of code from this book does not require permission. Selling or distributing a CD-ROM of examples from O'Reilly books does require permission

http://safari.adobepress.com/0596009747/xsltckbk2-PREFACE-2 I would assume other O'Reilly titles likely have similar licenses but it would be wise to check.

Comment it with the URL (3, Insightful)

BMonger (68213) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508673)

Usually if it's a complicated section of code I'll include the URL in a comment above. If it's just a line or two I won't. Often times if it's from a forum I stay with that forum for a few weeks and try to contribute back in some way.

If the code explicitly has a license attached to it I follow that of course. But I've not had to do that yet. I don't pull code from other project bases unless it's a library or such (in which case I follow the license). Only code that is meant to be viewed and used (such as forums/tutorials).

Plagiarize this (1)

SheldonYoung (25077) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508687)

At worst it's a licensing infringement and at best it's plagiarism.

You don't need to start a full on war unless the copying has been rampant, but it has to be addressed and not only for ethical reasons. If your company gets taken to court over copied code you can bet it will impact your employment situation.

I would suggest mention during the next meeting that the company as a whole needs to give credit for all code and remind them that an in intellectual property suit could made life difficult. As for the existing code, if you come across more code you aren't sure about the license for, ask the original author for permission to use it. If it is not granted bring it up with management that you attempted to resolve the issue but unfortunately the code will have to be replaced. It won't take many times of duplicating work already done before management starts making sure licenses are checked before incorporating code.

There is no need for finger pointing unless the copying continues in the future. If it does, then start raising your voice to protect both yourself and the company.

And YES, the code is copyrighted the instant it is created. And NO, because it's publicly viewable does not mean you are granted a license to do anything more than read it.

Appropriate Quote (4, Funny)

Rob Riggs (6418) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508697)

This just popped up at the bottom of this article's page:

Immature artists imitate, mature artists steal. -- Lionel Trilling

Re:Appropriate Quote (1)

nganju (821034) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508975)


I thought Picasso said that. [quotedb.com]

Then again, maybe he stole it.

Three answers: (1)

Glowing Fish (155236) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508703)

Utilitarian: The chances that this is going to be discovered and become an issue are practically nil. It seems like it was a (relatively) trivial piece of code floating around the web, and I doubt anyone will notice.

Legally: Depends on how it was added to the webpage. Especially if it was added under a pseudonym or the like, how can someone prove that they were the original author, and thus have the copyright, even if they wanted to?

Ethically: You should respect the copyright of someone else's work, and contact them. Also, talk to your supervisor.

I wouldn't worry. (3, Insightful)

jellomizer (103300) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508731)

Technically it is a copywrite violation but so is most anything now adays.

If the person posted code on a forum then normally they do so expecting people to use it. Hense Posting it on a forum. Most forums go like this.

First Post
How do I do this?

There is a reply
Try this code.

They usually replay with two options
Sorry it didn't work or It worked thanks.

You are probably just out of college were even looking at someone elses code is considered a great moral sin against humanity, where just the though of this could bar you away from higher education forcing you to live your life without being able to obtain a higher degree. In business if it works they use it even if it is a copy and paist. If it was something more problematic like say Using the source from an other companies code who had a strong license on it... Or using GPL code for non GPL reasons then there would be some consern. But for posting giving help to some one who wants to know how to do something it is basicly a non-issue.

fuck allah, fuck islam! (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508735)

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22007049/ [msn.com]

just remember that shit the next time you dare to call the united states a theocracy.
 
those muslim bitches are at it again. these are the fags who are willing to kill you if you insult their little fucking prophet. intolerance has no meaning in the united states compared to those faggot muslim bitch cunt countries.
 
fuck the koran, fuck allah!

Don't Panic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508747)

If posted on a discussion forum, clearly the intent was to share the code, but without an explicit license, it's technically a copyright violation. (And no, it's sure not PD; ignore the people who are telling you that.) Also, if in a forum, then I imagine the amount of copied code is pretty small.

But the intent to share the code, suggests that there won't be any consequences to the technical violation. Regardless of the law, it sounds like the author just doesn't care. Forget about it.

If you do talk to somebody about it, the first person you talk to is the guy who copied. I don't mean confront; just communicate. So much bullshit happens because people don't talk to each other. See what he thinks. Get his opinion. That he's the project lead, makes it even better: you just covered your ass.

Berne convention (1)

greed (112493) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508751)

You'll find that, in Berne convention countries, copyright is automatic and does not require an explicit copyright notice.

This means copyright must be explicitly disclaimed if you really want to put something in the public domain. Simply posting it on a forum probably wouldn't do that, especially given the number of forum systems which say "Comments and postings are copyright by their authors" or something similar. (Lack of that message would not imply there is no copyright.)

However, unless 200 lines is a sizable percentage of the completed work, I wouldn't worry about it this close to shipping. It also depends on just what those 200 lines of code actually are; interface definitions aren't copyright-able, after all. So there might be fewer, perhaps many fewer, lines of actual creative work.

And the work itself may be based on something that is public domain....

And the author would be hard-pressed to claim a loss of revenue in this case, since he did post it publicly.

Copying code from random un-attributed sources without license agreements isn't a good idea. But for this one, I wouldn't try and fix it. Ignorance is bliss and you've lost that now, but you can always pretend and be happy.

Another way to get burnt (1)

scubamage (727538) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508755)

Its always better to err on the side of caution with this stuff. You may want to notify your lead one on one that you found it. That way you're not going over his head, and you're being a man about stuff. The big concern for me wouldn't be the guy who posted it on a forum, it would be the question in my head about where he got the code before that. Was it his home brewed code? Maybe he swiped it from an O'Reilly cookbook? Maybe he was unscrupulous and swiped it from a website who had clearly noted that their code was not allowed for use. You don't know, making you assume one way or another. Sadly, assumption is the mother of all f*ckups. Now, another possibility is to post a response in the forum asking whether or not you can spoon in the code, or for a license clarification (if its a more recent post).

Easy (1)

felix9x (562120) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508771)

1. Write a small comment next to the comment mentioning the code was copied of the web.
2. Write a quick email to your boss telling them you did that.

Move on with more important things.

The correct response is... (1)

gillbates (106458) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508773)

If not, what's the best way to deal with this kind of situation? Since I'm now the only person working on this code, there's no practical way to report the situation confidentially.

First, do your research. Is it possible the code on the web was stolen or leaked from your employer? You might want to show the lead developer the web page.

If you should determine that the code was lifted from the web, the best response might be to simply rewrite the code, since it is only about 200 lines. Look for bugs in the existing code, which you could use to justify the rewrite to management, should they become curious, or worse, be of the shady type.

It might be helpful - after the rewrite - to send an email to all of the developers, the lead developer, and possibly his boss, saying something similar to this:

  • "During routine maintenance, I recently discovered some code in our codebase which was identical to code found on the web. To save the company from copyright infringement liability, I have taken the initiative to rewrite that portion of code. My concern is that there might be some among us who do not know that all code is copyrighted, and that copying code from others exposes the company - as well as the individual - to potential copyright infringement liability. If you, or someone you know, has done this in the past, please take the appropriate steps to rectify the situation."

It is important to highlight that you have just saved the company money and reduced their liability, and make sure to address no one individual in particular. Do not come across as accusing any one person, but rather, try to express a helpful attitude.

Now, understand that you are new here, and do not yet know the culture. If your employer has a culture of copyright infringement, it would probably be in your best interest to find another employer. Typically, when such companies are found out, they find a scapegoat on which to hang the guilt, and because you're the new guy, that would probably be you.

Re:The correct response is... (1)

Grey_14 (570901) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508915)

Holy cats, Does that every sound like a good way to become hated and possibly jobless, I've got to agree with other posters on here, Talk to the lead developer, consider rewriting the code first but bring it up with him before you commit it, don't go over his head, don't e-mail the boss and the bosses boss, that smacks of a lack of respect for the lead, and a lack of trust within the team.

Time to Play Devil's Advocate (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508799)

How do you know that your predecessor copied the code from the website? Maybe someone leaked your company's code and the website is the copyright violator.

Did you think about talking to the project lead? (1)

bennomatic (691188) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508803)

Why do you need to do anything anonymously? If you go to the programmer who did the copying, who is now the project lead, and indicate that you feel that there's a possibility that the code used might expose the company to legal risks, then it is up to him or her to do the right thing. You can certainly ask for a follow-up for documentation (i.e. SOX) purposes.

You might find that he or she is very appreciative of your efforts, and going to him or her was really great for your career. Unless there is a reason you don't feel safe going to this person--ie if they were sexually harassing you--they should be your very first stop.

Quick Points (5, Informative)

cleetus (123553) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508825)

IAALBTINLA (I am a lawyer but this is *not* legal advice)

1. The original write owns the copyright to the code.
2. By posting it to the BB, he might have agreed to license it under whatever terms by which the board operates. This might mean you have some license to use it (either implied or actual).
3. The code copied by the developer might not be enough of the work as a whole to considered infringement.
4. One test for determining whether computer code infringes copyright, in the USA at least, is the classic, yet ambiguous "abstraction, filtration, comparison" test. (If the copying was complete with comments, then that's not so good for the copier, but if the code accomplishes a trivial function, then not so much.)
5. Speaking generally, it's important to be on the lookout for situations like this. For instance, if code is copied from an open-source project, then significant consequences can follow (c.f. the Asus story below this one.)
6. If you are concerned, talk with your company's legal counsel.

I've got one better for you... (1)

crossb0nez (1078925) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508827)

I worked at a company 3 years ago on a project to create a secured web application, and a lot of js was used for functionality (think AJAX -- before AJAX was cool)... I came across a block of code submitted by the lead dev in a js file, that was copied EXACT, including the copyright commenting placed by the author of the code -- complete with the url to find said code on the web! Now, I felt this needed addressing, but upon doing so to the management of the company (a small outfit in the NE US, small enough I knew the CEO on first name basis), all I got was negative flack for pointing it out. Go figure.

Why don't you ask the original author? (1)

Down_in_the_Park (721993) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508843)

no more text needed, right?

I don't understand the question. (1)

goldspider (445116) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508875)

If something was stolen, the right thing to do would be to return it to its owner, no?

Hmm, Let's see... (4, Insightful)

aminorex (141494) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508903)

Gee, it's a dilemma: You could (1) talk to the guy about it, or (2) wave it over the global press under a pseudonym pretending that no one will guess who you are.

Let me think about this for a minute...

I wonder... (2, Funny)

sunaj (655412) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508909)

I wonder if your project lead reads /. ?

IANAL (4, Funny)

Greyfox (87712) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508923)

But I bet your company has one. Wait, I'm getting an idea... yes... yes... no, lost it. I'm sure it would have been the best legal advice ever posted on Slashdot, though...

I've been missing out on royalties. (0, Redundant)

ewhenn (647989) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508927)

I've seen my cide all over the NET!! I expect royalties from everyone who has ever used:

<script>
document.write("hello world!")
</script>

Question of authorship (1)

johncadengo (940343) | more than 6 years ago | (#21508935)

How do you know that he wasn't the one who posted the code in the forum in the first place? How do you know it wasn't his code to begin with?

He wanted you to use that code (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508949)

Why do people post code on internet? Because they want to help other people. They like to help. As simple as that. I don't think you can explain the amount of useful code on the net any other way.

The best reward you could give him i probably to use his code. He would probably be glad if he knew that his code was used. I say, send him an email with "Thanks! You code was really useful. Nice work. Keep it coming..."

Talk it out. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#21508961)

You mentioned that the person who copied the code is the lead developer. Why not discuss it with them directly before even considering talking to management or anyone else? See what their take on the situation is. If you can't establish a communicative relationship with the lead developer on a project that could be just as detrimental to your career as whistle-blowing.

Also, consider the timing. Has this code made it into a release yet? If not, and copyright is a real concern to others in your organization aside from yourself, now would be the time to act. If it's been in there for one or more releases, getting it out now won't put you in any better shape than getting it out of there for the next release.

 
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