Don’t look at escaped Microsoft code — smart legal advice

Don’t look at escaped Microsoft code — smart legal advice

Linux Journal has some good advice for anyone involved with Open Source software development.

As a reminder to our readers, we are repeating the same advice we published in 2000, the last time Microsoft’s source code was compromised. Don’t look at it or you could contaminate yourself legally.

The Wall Street Journal reported today [October 27, 2000 — Ed.] that Microsoft and the FBI are investigating an intrusion in which unknown attackers had access to Microsoft source code for three months. Although nothing purporting to be Microsoft source code copied in the intrusion has surfaced yet, any such code poses a legal risk to people who read it and to any free software project that accepts contributions from those people.

“Anybody who wishes to be involved in free software should have nothing to do with anything claiming to be Microsoft source code released without license or in any informal way,” said Eben Moglen, general counsel of the Free Software Foundation and professor of law and legal history at Columbia University. Microsoft, he said, would be in a position to seek damages from anyone trafficking in misappropriated trade secrets, which can include merely reading the Microsoft code and then contributing to a free project.

If offered any code that implements Microsoft-like APIs, or uses Microsoft’s file formats or protocols, the FSF will go beyond its normal legal paperwork to make sure that the contributor has not had contact with Microsoft’s proprietary information. “We would certainly take additional measures to prove the absence of any relationship between developers and Microsoft’s trade secrets,” Moglen said.

Free software developers are already careful to keep themselves insulated from any contact with proprietary information. Jeremy Allison, one of the lead developers on the Samba project, said that his response to one anonymous offer of Windows NT source code was, “You’re offering to end my career. Thanks but no thanks.” And the Samba team, he said, will refuse to work with anyone who has seen Microsoft’s proprietary code. “Anything we do has to be completely legal,” he said. “There are plenty of people who can work on it who haven’t seen Microsoft source code.” His advice to anyone planning to write free software in the future is, “Stay away from [proprietary Microsoft source code] at all costs.”