Is there any established logic for deciding who (software author, computer owner, local user, person who sent a remote command, etc.) is responsible for the actions of a computer?

Say that 1000 copies of a legal copy of a copyrighted file are created on a hard drive, on Ash's computer, via a web application that Bret wrote, which was set running by Charlie, and which served a web page to Dara, who clicked a big button labeled "Do Crime", which resulted in all these copies being made.

In this sort of situation it matters which legal entity actually "made" those copies, right? How would it be decided which legal entity the computer was being when it performed the actions in question here? Could the existence of a license authorizing one of these people to make 1000 copies of this particular file somehow affect who the computer was when it made them?

  • 5
    Computers aren't capable of "being" people, so the law doesn't worry about that question. Instead, it worries about who does what and why.
    – bdb484
    Oct 29, 2023 at 14:31
  • Then did anyone make the copies in question here? No particular person physically constructed them themselves, and if we aren't allowed to talk about a computer doing the copying under the auspices of some legal entity, how do we describe what is happening?
    – interfect
    Oct 29, 2023 at 14:37
  • 2
    What makes you think it's anyone/thing other than the person clicking the button (especially if it's labelled "Do Crime")?
    – TripeHound
    Oct 29, 2023 at 15:27
  • If I set up a web site with a button labeled "Do Crime", I guarantee someone is going to click it. But presumably I can't get out of trouble for all the crimes I want done by saying that someone else did them by clicking a button I set up and told them it would be a crime to click.
    – interfect
    Oct 29, 2023 at 17:09
  • If you drop a heavy object on someone from a great height and the person dies, is the object "being" you?
    – phoog
    Oct 30, 2023 at 13:02

2 Answers 2


Who expected what to happen?

  • Bret writes some malware and tricks Charlie into installing it by clicking on a link ("click here to verify your facebook account, or it will be shut down right this minute"). Dara operates the computer and clicks a link she considers harmless ("show cat content"). The malware does something illegal. Bret is responsible.
  • Bret writes a cloud storage/filesharing app. Charlie installs it on the computer, knowing that it is a cloud storage/filesharing app. Dara logs in and uses the app to download copyrighted files, knowing that those files are copyrighted and that she has no license to download them. Dara is responsible.

You specified that the button was labeled 'do crime.' Can we expect that Dara understood this was literally the case? If so, the second bullet point applies.

  • Ash has a license to download and view copyrighted material. Since Ash is not very familiar with the internet, Ash asks Charlie to install the necessary software on his computer and Dara to download the material. No crime.
  • Ash has a personalized license to download and view copyrighted material. Ash asks Charlie to install the necessary software and Dara to download the content where all users of the computer can view the material. Dara views it, knowing the terms of license. Ash or Dara may be responsible. Compare netflix 'password sharing.'
  • Ash has a personalized license to download and view copyrighted material. Ash asks Bret to develop a software tool to circumvent the 'personalized' part of the terms of the license, Charlie installs it, and Dara operates it. There may be a case against Bret, as well as Ash and Dara.

Let's be clear, the primary focus of law is computer operators as active agents, not computers.

Computers are just complicated modern machines, the mechanical essence of which has existed since before time immemorial.

The fact that someone configures a computer to work on a timer, or connects a trigger button, or whatever, there are generally simpler machines and mechanisms that contain the essence of the legal problem.

For example, Bob wires a bomb to an alarm clock. Who is legally responsible for the blast, the alarm clock itself, the alarm clock maker, or Bob? The answer is now quite obviously Bob, isn't it.

Bob wires a bomb to a vending machine button. Alice presses the button for a chocolate bar, triggering the blast. Who is responsible? Bob again.

Bob wires a bomb to a dead-mans handle for Charlie, a suicide bomber. Charlie later detonates the bomb by releasing the handle. Who is criminally responsible? Certainly Charlie if he were still there, but Bob has probably violated separate laws on explosives and dangerous machines, plus various aiding, abetting, and conspiring laws in connection with any wrongdoing Charlie executes.

You can extend the overall mechanism or system to Rube-Goldberg levels of complexity. The question is never about inanimate objects or mechanical processes having responsibility, but about the mentality and behaviour of the people involved - whether that concern those who devise or furnish the mechanism, or those who harness it to a particular end.

Applying this to a copying of files, the responsible person would be anyone who intends that the files be copied contrary to law, and does some act which causes it to occur (including through the necessary or possible consequence of a mechanical or bureaucratic process the crook devises).

If another person is subsequently involved in that process, performing some crucial physical act without which the crime would not occur, the question is about whether they have the relevant knowledge of the criminal outcome or purpose. If so, they may be in a role similar to the suicide bomber. If not, they may be in a role similar to the person using the vending machine to get a chocolate bar.

Either way, for the criminal law, the central object of concern are the people involved, their acts, and their intentions. No independence is attributed to inanimate objects or impersonal machines.

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