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How Much Code Can a Developer Copy?

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By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

Historically, software developers have frequently shared, modified, and copied code in the name of faster development and timely bug fixes. However, how much code can someone copy before they run afoul of intellectual property laws? Although copying some code is a common practice, copying word for word can have embarrassing results. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but sadly that defense doesn’t stand up in an intellectual property case.

Next time a tech client walks into your office, keep the following in mind to help them stay on the right side of the infringement line.

Know What’s Protected

Many people are surprised to learn that copyright law protects software. Beginning in the 1980s computer programs came under copyright protection, including HTML, object code, derivative computer programs, video games, and computer screen displays.

However, not all elements of a software program are protected – courts filter out certain fundamentals when comparing code for infringement, including:

The parts of a program that qualify as an original work of authorship are protected, allowing the owner to prevent others from reproducing, distributing or adapting the code.

Double-Check Notice and Licenses

Many developers include a copyright notice on their software if they consider it proprietary, whether it is a registered copyright or not. Moreover, those who don’t might still place limits on its use through open source licenses. These licenses let programmers know what kind of modifications they can make, and the conditions attached. A few of the most popular licenses are:

  • MIT License
  • GNU General Public License (GPL) 2.0
  • Apache License 2.0
  • GNU General Public License (GPL) 3.0

Open source software offers a trade-off: Developers can use others’ code as a jumping-off point, saving time and resources, but then they are expected to share any alterations as well as their methods of changing the source code.

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