I'd like to know if what I'm telling is possible or not.

I obviously know that's illegal to copy the code and add it to a commercial software.

But I think it's not illegal to study the code so you get to know how the "architecture" is and build your own implementation.

By "architecture" I mean for example a messaging system through the Tor network so you get to know what's needed to connect to a Tor node or know if there's any requirement the data packages have to fulfill or things like that.

At first sight, it doesn't look like it's forbidden the license for the cases of no license looks like it indicates that.

Although it's true that the "use" word is somehow ambiguous, I wouldn't consider it to mean studying the code and getting to know the aspects I'm mentioning, but maybe legally it is.

Indeed, there's a discussion forum which argues that no commercial use is allowed, as seen here.

Would it be possible to study the code and create my own implementation as I'm mentioning?

  • The license is for copying. If there is no license for copying, then you are not allowed to do that. The only reason it may be allowed on GitHub is because in order to post on GitHub you have to accept the terms of service, which include giving permission to let people "fork" your repositories, which is a form of copying. But just because it's posted on GitHub doesn't mean you are allowed to copy it somewhere else. Also, if there is no license offered, then it can't be considered open source software. Just because the source is 'viewable' is not enough to be considered open source.
    – Brandin
    Jun 4, 2018 at 15:24
  • @Brandin, I'm not sure if you have understood, I wouldn't be copying anything, just learning how some things of the application work which in any case is public available info, it's just that it takes way shorter time to check how they work rather than looking for them on the Internet. Jun 4, 2018 at 15:29
  • 1
    If you are not copying anything, then you don't need a license to read it. However, if you create a new program that is very similar to the old one, and the old one is posted publicly, it's likely that a neutral party (e.g. a judge) could look at both programs and come to a conclusion that you derived your version from the old one. See also: Can I cleanroom code by myself, if public specifications already exist?
    – Brandin
    Jun 4, 2018 at 15:31
  • @Brandin, thanks that's all I needed to know, as I'm telling I'm not into copying, just seeing how its "architecture" is. Jun 4, 2018 at 15:34

2 Answers 2


If you are living in Europe, you may look at other people's software and legally create your own in case that you do not copy code.

If you are living in the USA, you are called tainted if you did ever look into other people's software and thus may get into trouble.

This is why you sometimes may read about so called clean room implementations.

The nice thing is that if you are a European citizen and write the code in Europe, you may legally sell it in the USA even if you had a look into other people's sources.

Let me be more specific: The basic idea behind a software is not copyrighted. You can protect the basic idea only with a patent and only in countries that permit patents on software. So as long as your implementation is made by you and does not copy implementation details that could be seen as "own creation of sufficient creation level by another person", you may do so in Europe.

  • Tainted is not a legal concept. If you look at my code, and make a new one that is very similar, and I think that you copied it without my permission, I have a right to sue you for infringement in most jurisdictions. The specifics of how that works may vary, but just because you live in Europe doesn't mean you get to make derivative works without permission.
    – Brandin
    Jun 5, 2018 at 10:01
  • As mentioned already, you are allowed to use the same basic idea as long as you create an own implementation.
    – schily
    Jun 5, 2018 at 10:11

Welcome to the murky reign of "intellectual property rights". The idea behind "intellectual property" is that making use of anybody else's ideas against their wishes is not legal.

This idea is very much promulgated and infects to some degree courts and juries. Regardless of the factual legality, there may be costs associated with having to defend against the preconceptions.

So let's look at the actual legalities involved: against copying ideas, the legal protection mechanism are patents. There is no "cleanroom" protection against patents: coming up independently with the same idea or mechanism still requires you to pay royalties for any infringed patent.

In the U.S., an astonishing number of trivial ideas might be patent protected. If you are following an existing sample implementation and the person in question is likely to be an entity who has worked from specs in a patent or has patented stuff himself, you are more likely to tread on troublesome ground than if you just do something yourself. Simply because currently any random idea is more likely to not be covered by a patent than otherwise, and since patent protection runs out after a comparatively short time, that may even stay so for a while. Code may also be put out under a permissive license in order to trap you into using it. When it doesn't have an explicit patent grant, its author can still sue you for patent infringement. So patents may be a danger if the code is an intentional or accidental trap, but the copyright license it is under, unless specifically also covering patents, is not relevant.

Which gets us to the next possible problem: copyright. A tangible expression of an idea (rather than the idea itself) can be covered by copyright. This includes "transformative use" of copyrighted material such as the mechanical or manual translation into a different language or realm.

There have been very murky and very expensive court cases about transformative use trying to prove "structure, sequence, and organization" of APIs are sufficient for triggering copyright claims. Defense against such claims is uncertain and potential legal costs can be high. Regardless of the actual soundness of the underlying legal theories, you want to avoid getting dragged in a case of that kind since it can bankrupt companies let alone individuals.

Particularly so when talking about jurisdiction with juries where the "intellectual property" myth, due to a barrage of propaganda from corporations interested in perpetuating it, has taken enough of a hold in the mind of the populace that they are going to make rulings in accord with it even when none of the actually valid, limited rights for state-protected exclusive exploitation of some idea is really applicable to the case in question.

  • Nitpicking: Designs can be patented and works of authorship can be copyrighted. Ideas are not protected. Taking someone's idea and using it against their wishes is often not nice -- but it's perfectly legal.
    – jkdev
    Jun 17, 2018 at 10:12

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