Open Google Chrome and go to your favorite website. Right click, scroll down, and select “Inspect Element.” The lower-third of the page now displays a seemingly complex language of brackets, semicolons, and quotation marks.

This is called the source code, the formula used to create the very page you are viewing. And because you can lift the code by simply copy and pasting the information, it’s as easily extractable as text or images.

While most of us recognize that text and images are protected by copyright laws, code copyright is less understood, even though they’re generally the same.

“Each element of journalism is copyrighted, like text, picture, and code,” said Roman Fichman, a lawyer who provides services to technology startups and has been practicing new media law since 2005.

Because code can be easily manipulated and changed to create new meanings, it can be very difficult to prove that it was stolen or copied when it shows up on another site. Programmers can change the name of specific functions, variables, and objects in the code.

Causing further confusion is the open developer culture, which encourages sharing code and data; code is copyrighted, said Fichman, unless you choose to explicitly make it available to anyone. And many coders use online libraries to do just that, such as jQuery and Google API. GitHub and other online databases offer other platforms for developers to share.

“Instead of having to write a 10-line code, these libraries make it easier for you,” said Jose Signanini, software engineer at Evidon. “They are tools for a developer, like bricks when building a house.”

Signanini uses online libraries like backbone.js, apprise, parseUri, TipTip, and underscore.js. All of these libraries are free and provide licenses that outline the terms of using their respective codes.

Sometimes, though, there are limits to how much developers want to share with other curious coders, so graphic design teams attempt to prevent direct replication by hiding parts of their code. The New York Times, for example, obfuscates its mapping software. But in most cases it deliberately leaves its code open for other programmers to see, although attribution is common and expected, as Quartz discovered last December, for example, when the site posted screenshots of a NYT graphic, and the paper demanded that they be removed.

“In a lot of cases, we sort of want people to copy our implementation for something that’s more abstract rather than copying our design,” said Kevin Quealy, a graphics editor at the Times. “When you find a way to load a complex HTML file, you hope nobody has to go through that process again.” Quealy said that when dealing with complex script, he would not mind if another designer copied his code, as long as the developer credited Quealy’s work.

Shem Rajoon used HTML5, CSS3, PHP, and jQuery to design his website, Bklyn Beast. Rajoon also uses GitHub, a popular open-source repository Web site with over 3 million users.

“It’s a touchy subject,” said Rajoon. “For me, when I develop a site, application, or game, it really depends on what I’m doing with it. If it’s something that’s not bringing in any income for me, then I don’t really care.”

Fishman said that he hasn’t come across cases where code manipulation has become a legal issue, but said that the problem must exist. The New York Times, for example, experienced a copyright issue in 2012 when CNNMoney posted Nathan Yau’s graphic depicting the pay gap between men and women that was an update to a Times interactive graphic from 2010. CNNMoney displayed Yau’s visualization without citing the Grey Lady.

“However, it was an honest mistake by both CNNMoney and me,” Yau posted on FlowingData. “They didn’t catch the note in the footer, so they didn’t realize I had recreated the NYT graphic. They were quick to act when they found out though, so good on them.”

A discussion about the issue was the end to the controversy, said Quealy.

Similarly, The Globe and Mail created a gun law chart that borrowed heavily from the Guardian’s gay rights interactive. Globe and Mail didn’t credit the Guardian when the visualization was first uploaded but have since credited the design and layout to the Guardian.

In the end, the code copyright issue may be more about ideas than just lines of symbols.

“I think the cases where plagiarism is most suspected are when someone not only takes your code, but also steals the idea that your code implements,” said Quealy. “It’s really more about ideas for us.”

Correction: This piece originally misspelled Roman Fichman’s last name. CJR regrets the error.

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Michael J. Bellantoni and Shiwani Neupane are students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Bellantoni is also pursuing an M. I. A. degree at Columbia University. Feel free to reach him at mjb2243@columbia.edu.
Neupane is an author and journalist from Kathmandu, Nepal.