Curious Programmers Face Legal Tangles with Leaked Windows Code

While they may feel tempted to view the leaked Windows code, developers who do so could compromise their projects, face legal risks around copyright infringement and trade secret violations, experts advise.

With portions of Microsoft Windows NT and 2000 source code running wild on the Internet, programmers are battling the temptation to peek at the operating systems code. Doing so, legal experts warn, could thrust developers and their software projects into a legal hotbed.

"Theres no legitimate reason to look at it," said Phil Albert, a partner at law firm Townsend and Townsend and Crew LLP, in San Francisco. "For a programmer or a company that develops software, theres too much risk to even touch it."

The Windows source code leak, discovered this week and confirmed on Thursday by Microsoft, has led to debate among developers on Internet message board about whether to view it and about the implications of doing so.

One poster on Slashdot speculated, like many others, that enough people will view the source code to make it difficult for developers to remain disassociated from it.

"It will be essentially impossible for anyone to do virgin development on windows-like features for anything, as the information on precisely what the Windows version does will only be two steps of association from the programmer," the poster wrote.

Perhaps most at risk is the open-source community and particularly Linux, which are built on the trust among code contributors that none has breached other software copyrights in their development work, said Mark Radcliffe, a partner at law firm Gray Cary, in Palo Alto, Calif.

"The opportunity to give Microsoft an enormous hammer over the open-source community is just waiting there," he said.

/zimages/6/28571.gifTo read Linux & Open Source Center Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols take on viewing the stolen code, click here.

By viewing the Windows source code, open-source and commercial programmers alike would raise the question of whether they used any of the code directly in their own work or if the works were "substantially similar" in their organization or structure, Radcliffe explained. Either could be enough for claims of a copyright violation.

Next Page: Copyright Infringement Isnt the Only Risk