What Happens If Someone Steals Code From Github


What Happens If Someone Steals Code From Github
What Happens If Someone Steals Code From Github

As the world of software development continues to grow and evolve, so too does the landscape of intellectual property theft. With platforms like GitHub becoming an invaluable source of code libraries, frameworks, and tools for developers, it’s more important than ever to understand what happens if someone steals code from these repositories. In this article, we’ll explore the potential consequences of committing such an act, how developers can protect themselves and their code, as well as ways to address potential violations.

As an abundant resource for developers to share and collaborate on projects, Github has become a nexus for open-source software. I decided to write about it since I think this is what most of you use these days. I myself have used Github for several projects and I am more familiar with it and how it works so I’m going to stick to it.

What I’m going to talk about in this article however is not necessarily limited to Github but other platforms too as a lot of the concepts below are generalized and apply everywhere.

Understanding Open Source Licenses

Different open-source licenses grant different levels of permissions regarding the usage and distribution of code. Understanding these licensing agreements is essential for anyone planning to use code from Github, either for personal or professional purposes. Some allow substantial freedom, while others place significant restrictions on copying, modifying or distributing the code.

A primary example of a permissive license is the MIT License, which effectively allows anyone to use, modify, re-distribute, and even sell the code; they need only to attribute the original author in doing so. By contrast, the GNU General Public License (GPL) requires not only attribution but that any changes be made public, and that derivative works also adopt the same license. I have spoken in the past more into the extents of GPL in article which you can find referenced below.

The reason you need to understand Open source licenses is that they play a crucial role on what repercussions someone will have if they decided to take your code.

Violation of License Terms

Using someone else’s code without adhering to the terms of their chosen open-source license is considered a copyright infringement. This offense can lead to both civil and criminal consequences, depending on how severe the violation and subsequent damages occur. When individuals release their code under a particular license, it signifies their intent to control its usage; non-compliance often results in legal disputes.

A real life example is, Artifex Software, Inc., sued Hancom, Inc., for incorporating parts of Artifex’s Ghostscript software, which is licensed under the GPL, into their product without adhering to GPL distribution terms. Artifex demanded either statutory damages or a percentage of revenue generated from Hancom’s product utilizing Ghostscript.

The things that came into play during this law suit were the following:

  • Copyright infringement
  • Civil and criminal consequences
  • Legal disputes resulting from license violations

As you can see the list can get fairly fast big and have a domino effect on what applies.

Contacting the Offender

Should an individual discover that someone unauthorized used code found on Github, their initial step should involve contacting the offender. Communication can resolve misunderstandings, compliance issues, or ignorance of licensing terms expeditiously — sometimes even preventing legal action. The offender might not be aware they violated licensing rules, instead believing they were permitted to utilize the published code freely.

In the past I have spoken a lot about the Oracle America, Inc., and Google LLC case. Google utilized APIs from Oracle’s Java SE platform in their Android operating system. Throughout the dispute, which began in 2010, both parties engaged in negotiations; they never reached a suitable arrangement, leading to repeated lawsuits and appeals.

Several things happened during this case but the main take away lessons from it and how they may apply here in your Github code being stolen are:

  • Initiating contact with the offender
  • Resolving misunderstandings or ignorance
  • Can potentially avoid legal action

Always try to communicate or if you are in the receiving end accept that and see where it goes to save your time and money.

Github’s Role in the Issue

Github is primarily a code-hosting platform designed to facilitate collaboration among developers. It operates independently of those discussing copyright claims or policy enforcement. In situations involving stolen code, Github does not automatically mediate between affected parties but has a process for filing a DMCA takedown notice if an author believes their copyrighted work was utilized without permission.

Once receiving a valid DMCA claim, Github removes the content accused of infringement and provides notification to the accused, including the details of the claim. The accused may file a counter-notification explaining the issue has been resolved or that content was removed as a result of a mistake. Subsequently, Github will review and decide whether to reinstate the material.

  • Github’s neutrality in code disputes
  • DMCA takedown notice process
  • Review procedure for counter-notifications

Do note that just because you can file a DMCA take down notice it doesn’t necessarily you will automatically win. It has to be substantiated and examined by someone neutral to get it off their repo.

Enforcing Github Repository Takedowns

To elaborate a bit more on the previous point that I made, if contact with the offender proves insufficient and a violation is still evident, affected parties can pursue legal action by filing a DMCA complaint. This complaint requests that Github removes any code or content violating an individual’s copyright. The request must identify the copyrighted work, demonstrate infringement, and provide essential information such as appropriate contact details, a statement of good faith belief, and evidence of ownership.

For instance, Uber requested Github remove repositories containing code allegedly stolen by a former employee for their autonomous vehicle project. After receiving a valid DMCA claim, Github removed the content and informed the accused about the infringement claim, in line with standard protocol.

  • File a DMCA complaint
  • Require proof of infringement, evidence of ownership, and contact information
  • Github’s removal of infringing content upon valid claims

Again just because it worked or it will work once you can’t take it for granted you really need to have a strong case and be ready to defend it if you have too by offering more information.

Legal Consequences for Code Theft

Stealing code from Github and using it beyond the terms of its open-source license places individuals at risk of severe legal consequences. For example, the infringer may be required to pay monetary damages, relinquish profits obtained through non-compliant usage, or face the complete prohibition of their product. Legal remedies depend on various factors, including the specificities of each case and jurisdiction.

As we stated earlier and by now you know that I like this case during the Oracle vs. Google lawsuit, after a series of trials and appeals, the US Supreme Court eventually ruled in Google’s favor, finding that its use of Java APIs constituted fair use under copyright law; however, the prolonged legal battle cost both companies significant time and resources.

  • Paying monetary damages
  • Relinquishing unlawfully-obtained profits
  • Potentially prohibiting entire products

The bottom line here that I’m trying to make is that sure Google may have won but they lost a lot in the process in terms of money and time.

Understanding the Ethical Implications

Apart from the legality of code theft, it’s crucial to recognize the ethical implications as well. Stealing code from fellow developers and organizations doesn’t only involve potential legal consequences – it also undermines the principles of trust, collaboration, and innovation ingrained within the tech community. Acts of intellectual property theft can:

  • Damage reputations within the industry
  • Discourage contributions to open-source projects
  • Stifle creativity and progress in the field

Ultimately, respect for others’ work and adherence to licensing conditions are fundamental aspects of sustaining a vibrant global community of developers. Being on the receiving end in the past I know it hurts to have my code stolen and used without even giving credit despite me using GPL licensing and offering it to the community for free.

If you do not care about ethics I guess you can ignore this point but I do and I believe most developers in the community are on the same side as me on it.

International Scope of Intellectual Property Theft

As GitHub is globally accessible, it’s essential to consider the international scope of intellectual property theft when discussing code theft. With varying intellectual property laws across countries, addressing violations originating from different jurisdictions can become a complex process. However, some multinational agreements aid in harmonizing IP laws, including:

  • Berne Convention
  • TRIPS Agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights)
  • WIPO Copyright Treaty

It’s worth noting that pursuing infringers based in other countries may entail additional costs, further complicating legal enforcement. Just to clarify here when I say international scope I mean outside the US. Since legislation may vary and to what extent you can prosecute people stealing your code things can get complicated.

In my opinion Github does not do a great job here isolating things automatically and offering much protection so it’s really on you to put things out there knowing that people outside America can steal your code from Github.

Protecting Code on Github

Developers can safeguard their code on Github through various practices, including meticulous documentation; adopting a specific open-source license; and, if needed, hosting repositories privately. By having a private repository, only authorized users can view contents, thus securing the code from stolen access or unauthorized use.

For example, Google’s Fuschia project – an open-source operating system – hosts its code on Github using a private repository. This practice allows Google to remain in control of who can access, modify, and distribute the code while keeping it secure from potential theft.

  • Documenting code well
  • Adopting an appropriate open-source license
  • Utilizing private repositories for additional security

Essentially keeping your repos private that you do not want them to be stolen is the best thing you can do. Licensing is good but remember there’s also the international aspect to it as we mentioned earlier.

Understanding Intellectual Property Rights

One thing you should do as a developer is acknowledge intellectual property rights when utilizing code from Github to evade legal issues that may transpire due to violations. Regardless of whether their intent was malicious or not, infringers remain accountable for copyright violations under relevant laws. Hence, comprehending licenses, ensuring compliance, and respecting intellectual property rights is crucial.

There was a case with Hala Systems vs. Carbone, the plaintiff accused the defendant of lifting code from their repository to develop a similar life-saving app. The case demonstrates the importance of understanding and adhering to intellectual property rights even in scenarios where one’s motivation may appear altruistic.

Remember staying compliant with licensing and regulation is your responsibility as a developer even if you work for a big multinational. It may be a bit too much to ask but we really are the ones that will get blamed at the end of the day. At the end of the day when undertaking a development task and you are using external resource the fault is on you if you violate someone’s IP.

Penalties for Code Theft on Github

Individuals found liable for stealing code from Github face a multitude of penalties, depending on the severity and the jurisdiction where the infringement occurred. These include fines, injunctions, seizure of devices used during the act, damages owed to the original developer, and, in extreme cases, criminal penalties or incarceration.

If for example someone is sued in a U.S. court for profiting off a commercial software that uses stolen code data aggregator project hosted on Github. They could potentially face hefty monetary damages, cease sales of their illicit software, and face consequences for violating intellectual property laws.

  • Fines can be significantly impactful
  • Injunctions may force offenders to halt specific actions
  • Criminal charges and jail time are possible under serious circumstances

The list above may seem scary but most of the times this is not enforced however if it does get enforced you will have a difficult situation at your hands.

Detection of Code Theft on Github

It’s crucial for developers to be vigilant about protecting their intellectual property when sharing code on Github. One method is using plagiarism detection tools and monitoring similar projects to compare and identify stolen code. Additionally, keeping track of licenses that allow potential commercial use and working with legal experts adept in intellectual property matters can safeguard your work.

License violations involving code from your game engine uploaded to Github come to light when competitor gaming companies introduce remarkably similar products. You’ll need to carefully analyze the competing game’s codebase for evidence of illegal use before pursuing legal action.

  • Proactive monitoring is critical for detecting code theft
  • Utilizing plagiarism detection tools can protect assets
  • Engaging with legal professionals can help navigate intellectual property issues
  • You can add whitespaces or other watermarks in your code that are otherwise invisible or hard to trace from someone using the code.

Examples Of What Could be Implicated Stealing Code From Github

Below I want to go over some direct example of what has happened in the past related to Github code being stolen.

Direct Copyright Infringement

In order to bring forth an infringement suit, the owner must establish that they hold a valid copyright and the alleged infringer has violated at least one exclusive right under 17 U.S.C. § 106.
If the lawsuit results in a successful claim, the owner may be entitled to statutory damages ranging from $750 to $30,000 per work, or even up to $150,000 if the infringement is deemed willful (17 U.S.C. § 504(c)).

Contributory Infringement

This occurs when someone knowingly induces, contributes, or assists another in infringing upon copyrighted work.
A person who steals a code may not only risk exposure for direct infringement but also face contributory infringement liability.
For contributory infringement, the right holder would need to prove the defendant had knowledge of infringements and materially contributed to them (Gershwin Publ’g Corp. v. Columbia Artists Mgmt., Inc., 443 F.2d 1159).
Essentially aiding others by supplying stolen code could lead to liability under this doctrine.
Similar to direct infringement, damages may include actual damages suffered by the copyright holder and additional amounts representing any profit made by the contributor.

Criminal Penalties

Although rare, some instances of code theft may rise to the level of criminal charges.
Under 17 U.S.C. § 506(a) and 18 U.S.C. § 2319, defendants found guilty may be subject to imprisonment for up to ten years and substantial fines, depending on whether it was a first offense and involved willful intent for commercial advantage or private financial gain.
The Department of Justice has the jurisdiction to prosecute such cases, but only if the infringement meets a minimum threshold of financial impact.


To summarize, stealing code from Github can result in severe consequences, often leading to civil and criminal litigation. Understanding the nuances of open-source licensing, upholding intellectual property rights, and engaging in appropriate communication during disputes are all essential aspects to navigate this domain. Protection of one’s work involves detailed documentation, the adoption of suitable licenses, and potentially, private repositories. As the digital landscape evolves, recognizing and respecting others’ intellectual property will remain crucial to fostering cooperation and maintaining a healthy development ecosystem.

The importance of respecting intellectual property rights and adhering to the terms of open source licenses cannot be overstated. By understanding the risks associated with code theft, developers can better protect their creations, platforms like GitHub can maintain an environment that fosters collaboration and growth, and the global developer community can continue to thrive.



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