A US court has decided that software cannot be counted as property.
The ruling has come in the case of a Goldman Sachs programmer, Sergey Aleynikov, who downloaded source code for the investment firm’s high-speed trading system from the company’s computers.
According to Wired, Aleynikov was wrongly charged with theft of property because the code was not a physical object and he did not gain control of anything when he took it.
The three-judge panel in New York also ruled that Aleynikov was wrongly charged with espionage. The code was not a product designed for interstate or foreign commerce.
The ruling explains why the judges delivered a surprise ruling last February that reversed Aleynikov’s conviction and sprung him from an eight year prison sentence.
Aleynikov had admitted that he violated the bank’s confidentiality policy in downloading the source code from the company’s computers. But he said that it was not a criminal act because the code wasn’t used in interstate commerce.
In February, the federal appeals court, led by Chief Justice Dennis Jacobs, agreed and reversed the conviction.
One of the things that stood against Goldman Sachs’ source code as something that could be stolen was the fact that the company went to great lengths to keep it secret.
Goldman Sachs made huge amounts of cash by not letting anyone else have the code. But this meant that Aleynikov’s theft of source code relating to that system was not an offense.
Aleynikov earned nearly $400,000 a year as a vice president with Goldman Sachs. It was claimed he siphoned source code for the company’s valuable software on his way out the door to take a new job with another company.
Goldman Sachs only uncovered the theft after it began monitoring HTTPS transfers and saw a large volume of data leaving its network.
Aleynikov acknowledged taking the code, but told FBI agents he only intended to collect open source software files on which he had worked.