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I saw this post concerning the ethical use of software and it brought another question to mind.

If I were to release software with an open source license, and someone were to use it in a manner that is illegal, what affect might that have on me?

Specifically, am I able to be held responsible for illegal use of my open source software?

  • It should me similar to if you make a brick and some one uses it in an illegal way. – ctrl-alt-delor Jun 30 '16 at 22:05
  • Note that software is not Free-Software (or open-source), if it restricts what a user can do with it (tries to be ethical, though shall not do this or that). So do not try to restrict, the law will do this for you. The reason is that it just causes a lot of ethical problems. Like “can not be used for evil”: Microsoft has defined the whole open-source Free Software movement as evil. So how can anyone decide if you infringe the licence. – ctrl-alt-delor Jun 30 '16 at 22:08
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    @richard seriously? Microsoft has defined the whole open source movement as evil? I guess that's why they've open sourced .Net, Asp.Net, and the compilers for both VB and C# then? Oh... They've open sourced all of their documentation too, including the VBA docs... – RubberDuck Jun 30 '16 at 22:45
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    @richard That's absolutely nonsense and irrelevant to the question. The OP is asking whether he is in a legally grey area if someone decides to take his or her open source software and use it illegally (imagine somebody taking it to harass someone). – Zizouz212 Jul 1 '16 at 1:47
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That's what the big shouty all-caps warranty disclaimer, that many people seem to dislike, is doing. Here's an example from the MIT license:

THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED "AS IS", WITHOUT WARRANTY OF ANY KIND, EXPRESS OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE AND NONINFRINGEMENT. IN NO EVENT SHALL THE AUTHORS OR COPYRIGHT HOLDERS BE LIABLE FOR ANY CLAIM, DAMAGES OR OTHER LIABILITY, WHETHER IN AN ACTION OF CONTRACT, TORT OR OTHERWISE, ARISING FROM, OUT OF OR IN CONNECTION WITH THE SOFTWARE OR THE USE OR OTHER DEALINGS IN THE SOFTWARE.

It's actually two sentences; the first is the warranty disclaimer - I don't guarantee this software does what you think it does - and the second part is the limitation of liability - I'm not responsible for whatever happens when you use the software. Usually it's the first sentence that is controversial; it usually comes up whenever a software flaw causes significant damage and some people start calling for programmers to be held responsible. The situation that the second sentence addresses does come up too, though. If you pay attention to news and politics, you can probably find examples of where a product is used unethically, but people want to hold the manufacturers of that product responsible. Think about examples where the product is perceived to facilitate unethical use - hacking/cracking, copyright infringement, trading of illegal goods etc.

Therefore you should use standard open source licenses, which are vetted by real lawyers and may have also been tested in court. Such licenses usually have limitations of liability in them, to provide some protection for you.

Examples

I've already listed the MIT example, but it also exists in BSD (similar wording, also all caps), GPLv3 (clause 16, also all caps), Apache (clause 8, surprisingly not in all caps), MPL (clause 7, not in all caps but amusingly highlighted in yellow).

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Technically no, you should not be held responsible for the use of your software. But the law is complex and I imagine it depend heavily on the country you live and what your software do.

I suppose that a software that can be used to make some illegal acts it is probably border-line and can incur in some problem.

Update to address the comment
The use of a software and the copyright of a software are two different things. Jason specifically ask if he can be held responsible for the illegal use of his open source software, which means that he has the copyright of the software.
But the copyright don't address how somebody can use a software, but only the property of it (well, sometime the copyright try to address also how you use the software, but since we are speaking of opensource, this not apply)

An example can be a password cracking program: I can write one (for various reasons, let's say to learn something about rainbow table and thread programming) and release under GPL. Now, if someone use it to crack a password to gain unauthorized access to a system, can I (the author of the software, which has the copyright) be held responsible of this illegal use of my software ? Question to which I answered above.

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    Could you elaborate, or cite some sources? As this answer stands, it's very weak - copyright is generally uniform across countries that have all ratified the Berne Convention, which is almost every country in the world. – Zizouz212 Jul 4 '16 at 21:36
  • I explained a little better my answer... – Gianluca Jul 4 '16 at 23:15

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