Identifying and Preventing Software Plagiarism

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By Obinna Okey-Ndeche Esq.

An increasing and evolving concern in the technology industry is illegal copying of software. In this article I addressed the area of research in technology law which has traditionally been called the identification of software plagiarism.

Most software is hard to write, requiring years of training and experience to do correctly. Simply ask any programmer who has spent countless hours racking his brain attempting to execute a complicated function or debug a piece of computer code that simply would not run. The human-readable source code of software contains intellectual property. The machine-executable binary code produced from the source code often contains intellectual property.

Intellectual property(IP) is intangible, but it is precious nevertheless. IP, like physical property, may be owned, exchanged, or merely held. It is also possible for it to be hacked. Much like you wouldn’t want anyone to take the fruits of your physical labour, you wouldn’t want anyone to take the fruits of your mental work. Similarly, once you pay for a source code, it is yours, and stealing it is fraud.

A program source code characterization is realistic for correlation determination, and essentially for deciding when copying has taken place. While the idea and concepts are widely sufficient to be applicable in different fields of computer science, in litigation they are of special importance.[1]

This article is aimed at IT professionals, lawyers and professional analysts or forensic experts.

Lawyers can learn how IP fraud is detected, how IP modifications are measured in applications and how their positive or unfavourable results will be better presented in the courts. This article cannot convey in-depth legal expertise because there are no known case laws concerning Software Infringement with the Nigerian legal system in mind. But the concept of the foundations and precedents until now is what it should do.

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 There will be copyright infringement if the code’s owner prohibits such copying. Source code theft is also a concern, owing to employee versatility and the ease with which code can be downloaded onto a nearly undetectable flash drive or transmitted by encrypted messaging over the internet.

The Computer language is not just vast, but enormous as they evolve with the latest technology trends. Even giving just a mere holistic view on each language will require a textbook of its own.

There are terminologies here that are mentioned for interpretation for lawyers and for non-programmers who may not be tech savvy’ or technically inclined.

The most unique way to identify authorship of a code is with the comment/string correlation and name identifier correlation.[2] This method of identifying the author of a software is known as source code correlation.

It would be possible to identify correlations between the components most likely to be peculiar to individual programmers in determining the authorship of one programme or an algorithm of one programme in order to identify the source code similarity. These are the comments, strings and identifier names.

In certain cases, like legal disputes, the author of the source code is relevant. This will occur where a code for a programme was jointly created by two parties and the code written by the party cannot be identified due to a contractual disagreement or a royalty agreement.

Source code correlation can be used to detect trade secret theft of a source code. If literal items from the source code of a computer are copied, this is not only a violation of copyright, but quite sometimes is a case of trade secret theft.

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Source codes are not always publicly available. Programmers may be able to execute such functions using source code, but each programme has a number of special functions that are applied in an unknown manner, so they are unique to each programme.

Most of the code benefits the owner economically because of the expertise and effort involved in its production. Furthermore, a rival can study the source code to discover the shortcomings of a programme and use such knowledge for reducing the usefulness and value of the programme.

The owner of the source code, typically makes fair attempts to keep the source software confidential.

In conclusion, to protect themselves from software plagiarism, it is highly recommended to file a copy of the work being protected with the Trademark Copyright Office as proof. Ensure that the software contains trade secrets to give it patentable/copyrightable flavour where applicable.

It is best to consult with a lawyer or Copyright agent on how you can go about the registration.

[1] The Software IP Detective’s Handbook, Robert Zeidman,

[2] Ibid.

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