Imagine the following scenario:

A software company copies code from some open source project and includes it in their own software without giving credit to the original authors, violating the open source license and copyright.

The software company then gives me the software and its source code under a proprietary license. If I am not aware of the copyright violation, am I at risk of legal consequences if I store the source code on my computer and use the software?

Suppose that at some point I become aware of the copyright violation. Am I at risk at this point?

  • Realistically, open source copyright holders will not pursue you if you act in good faith. They might ask you to comply with the license in some way. There are not a lot of open source copyright trolls. (I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice)
    – user253751
    Jun 10, 2022 at 11:55
  • You might want to look at the Waymo vs. Uber case for inspiration. Otto was a self-driving car company that was bought out by Uber for ~$1B. Waymo (a google spinoff working on self-driving cars) proved that Otto was using a massive amount of code an executive stole while working at Google and Waymo for a decade. The executive ended up pleading to criminal charges over the theft and spent 18 months in prison. Uber settled a lawsuit with Waymo for ~$250M over the stolen code.
    – Chuu
    Jun 10, 2022 at 18:04

2 Answers 2


If you copy copyrighted material without permission or another exemption, you are at risk

It doesn’t matter if you know the material is subject to copyright, it doesn’t matter if you think you have permission but don’t, it doesn’t even matter if you knowingly make the copy or if it is some background process you don’t know about. Copyright law is really simple: if you make an unlawful copy, you broke it.

If this seems unduly harsh, remember you are dealing with a law with its roots in the 18th century that was internationalised at the beginning of the 20th century. Making copies then was a hard, deliberate process - you couldn’t “accidentally” or “inadvertently” make a copy of a literary or artistic work. Now you can - the world has changed, the law hasn’t.

  • But it was the software company that made the copy and gave it to them (perhaps by sending them a disk), not the OP. This is more analogous to "possession of stolen goods", isn't it? You may have to destroy your copy, but you're not liable for primary infringement, are you?
    – Barmar
    Jun 10, 2022 at 14:46
  • 2
    Is there any precedent on this? Is copyright infringement a statutory crime? Don't you have to have mens rea?
    – DRF
    Jun 10, 2022 at 15:00
  • 1
    Ahh so civil copyright claims are statutory, though punishment seems to depend on willfulness, Criminal copyright infringement on the hand is not statutory and the government must prove mens rea.
    – DRF
    Jun 10, 2022 at 15:03
  • 2
    This answer is probably overly scary (which makes it a good lawyer answer, but not necessarily good practical advice). As a party who purchased and is using the software, it's very unlikely that you are making copies of it. On a purely mechanical level as part of use, some transient copies - likely in small parts at a time and rarely or never the whole thing - might be made, but if/when that happens, it's being done by a machine that was programmed to do so by someone else, not OP the operator, ... Jun 10, 2022 at 16:53
  • 4
    @R..GitHub: Those copies are exempt under 17 USC 117(a)(1) under US law. I don't know whether other countries have analogous laws, but I imagine it is likely.
    – Kevin
    Jun 10, 2022 at 17:45

Since you mentioned open source software: If I give you some open source software in a way that makes it copyright infringement, then using the software is in principle copyright infringement. However, the copyright owner is likely more concerned with ensuring everyone’s right to use the open source software, so they are not going to sue you as long as you agree to the license terms.

  • I don't see how 'using' the software (i.e. double clicking on an icon to run it) is a legal problem for copyright. If the company gave you a copy of some software without abiding by the license (e.g. without giving you the source code, in the case of GPL code), then the company were the ones who violated copyright by giving you that copy (while ignoring the license). But once it's on your hard disk, I don't see how any further copyright violations could occur, even if you run it. Unless you then give that copy to someone else, of course; at that point, you violate the license again.
    – Brandin
    Jun 14, 2022 at 14:03
  • You launch an application, it gets COPIED into memory.
    – gnasher729
    Oct 26, 2022 at 19:10
  • I believe that sort of transient, internal copying that occurs as an essential part of a computer operation has been ruled or specified to be an exceptional case (i.e. it's not a copyright violation).
    – Brandin
    Oct 27, 2022 at 7:30

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