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With portions of Microsoft Windows NT and 2000 source code running wild on the Internet, programmers are battling the temptation to peek at the operating system’s code. Doing so, legal experts warn, could thrust developers and their software projects into a legal hotbed.

“There’s no legitimate reason to look at it,” said Phil Albert, a partner at law firm Townsend and Townsend and Crew LLP, in San Francisco. “For a programmer or a company that develops software, there’s too much risk to even touch it.”

The Windows source code leak, discovered this week and confirmed on Thursday by Microsoft, has led to debate among developers on Internet message board about whether to view it and about the implications of doing so.

Perhaps most at risk is the open-source community and particularly Linux, which are built on the trust among code contributors that none has breached other software copyrights in their development work, said Mark Radcliffe, a partner at law firm Gray Cary, in Palo Alto, Calif.

“The opportunity to give Microsoft an enormous hammer over the open-source community is just waiting there,” he said.

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