Federal Court Rules “Stealing” Code Doesn’t Break Law


The US Court of Appeals on Wednesday issued a ruling holding that a former programmer did not violate federal law prohibiting theft of trade secrets when he copied portions of his former employer’s confidential source code.

In June 2009, Aleynikov uploaded 500,000 lines of confidential source code from Goldman Sachs’s computer system on his last day at work. Later he downloaded the code to his home computer and brought it to his new employer for their use. In its opinion, the court found that the transmission of intangible data does not constitute theft under the National Stolen Property Act (NSPA):

The NSPA does not criminalize the theft of intangible things. … By uploading Goldman’s proprietary source code to a computer server in Germany, Aleynikov stole purely intangible property embodied in a purely intangible format. There was no allegation that he physically seized anything tangible from Goldman. … We decline to stretch or update statutory words of plain and ordinary meaning in order to better accommodate the digital age.


Aleynikov was also acquitted under the Economic Espionage Act because the source code was not sufficiently related to the product produced by his former employer Goldman Sachs.

Should stealing code be illegal or should all code just be open source? The original person still has their code, so how can it be stolen? All code originates from other code. So if you want to say that code is stolen then all code is stolen. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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