Court Says That Copying Code Is Not Really Theft Under The Law
from the deprived-of-use dept
We’ve been pointing out for a while that copyright is not property and that infringement is not theft. And yet… some people can’t seem to let this go — insisting that both claims are true. Of course, one retort from our side of the discussion is the simple fact that you don’t see people who copy content being charged with “theft.” However, in a case that received plenty of publicity involving a Goldman Sachs employee who had copied some code from the company, he was actually charged with theft. In response, however, a 2nd Circuit appeals court panel has said he was wrongfully charged, because code is not property. The court specifically cites the Dowling case, which we’ve discussed on many occasions, which makes clear that infringement is a different beast than theft.
The infringement of copyright in Dowling parallels Aleynikov’s theft of computer code. Although “[t]he infringer invades a statutorily defined province guaranteed to the copyright holder alone[,] . . . he does not assume physical control over the copyright; nor does he wholly deprive its owner of its use.” Id. at 217. Because Aleynikov did not “assume physical control” over anything when he took the source code, and because he did not thereby “deprive [Goldman] of its use,” Aleynikov did not violate the NSPA.
Of course, it’s somewhat unfortunate that in a ruling in which the court finds that Aleynikov has been improperly charged with “theft” under the law… they still repeatedly refer to his actions as “theft.” It’s too bad they did not properly note that he copied the code, but still repeatedly claim he “stole” it, as they describe his actions in passing — but when they discuss the actual legal aspect, they admit that there was no theft.
Separately, the court rejected the charges brought under the Economic Espionage Act, noting that the law he was charged under is limited to trade secrets concerning products used in commerce, and since the code in question was for internal use anyway, it did not qualify under the law.
To some extent (and then further in a concurring opinion written by one of the judges on the panel), the court seems to suggest that it doesn’t necessarily like these results (this is less clear in the official opinion, but it appears to be what the panel is implying at times), but that the problem is how Congress wrote these particular statutes. It may be true that the laws are drafted poorly, but it’s important that copying code is not seen as theft, because it is not theft. Still, the overall ruling here is good, though it could have been more complete.