Copyright Notices in Open Source Software Projects
Steve Winslow | 10 January 2020
“What copyright notice should appear at the top of a file in an OSS project with many contributors?” This is a question we get all the time. Many of our communities have discussed this issue and aligned on a common approach that we thought would be useful to share.
When source code, documentation and other content is contributed to an OSS project, the copyrights in those contributions typically remain owned by the original copyright holders1.
What follows is a discussion of the typical OSS project where each contributing organization and individual retains ownership of their copyrights that they make available under the project’s open source software license. In this case, the copyrights are licensed for distribution as part of the project. Whether a project uses the Developer Certificate of Origin (“DCO”) and/or a Contributor License Agreement (“CLA”), the original copyright holders retain their copyrights.
Copyright Notices – Community Best Practice
Most LF project communities do not require or recommend that every contributor include their copyright notice in contributed files. See below for more details on why not.
Instead, many LF project communities recommend using a more general statement in a form similar to the following (where XYZ is the project’s name):
- Copyright The XYZ Authors.
- Copyright The XYZ Contributors.
- Copyright Contributors to the XYZ project.
These statements are intended to communicate the following:
- the work is copyrighted;
- the contributors of the code licensed it, but retain ownership of their copyrights; and
- it was licensed for distribution as part of the named project.
By using a common format, the project avoids having to maintain lists of names of the authors or copyright holders, years or ranges of years, and variations on the (c) symbol. This aims to minimize the burden on developers and maintainers as well as redistributors of the code, particularly where compliance with the license requires that further distributions retain or reproduce copyright notices.
What if I want my copyright notice included?
Please note that it is not wrong, and it is acceptable, if a contributor wishes to keep their own copyright notices on their contributions. The above is a recommended format for ease of use, but is not mandated by LF project communities.
If you are contributing on behalf of your employer, you may wish to discuss with your legal department about whether they require you to include a copyright notice identifying the employer as the copyright holder in contributions. Many of our members’ legal departments have already approved the above recommended practice.
What about code copied into the project repository from a Third Party?
If a file only contains code that originates from a third party source who didn’t contribute it themselves, then you would not want to add the notices above. (In a similar vein, you wouldn’t add a notice identifying you as the copyright holder either, if you didn’t own it.) Just preserve the existing copyright and license notices as they are.
If, however, you add copyrightable content to a pre-existing file from another project, then at that point you could add a copyright notice similar to the one above.
Don’t change someone else’s copyright notice without their permission
You should not change or remove someone else’s copyright notice unless they have expressly (in writing) permitted you to do so. This includes third parties’ notices in pre-existing code.
Why not list every copyright holder?
There are several reasons why LF project communities do not require or recommend trying to list every copyright holder for contributions to every file:
- Copyright notices are not mandatory in order for the contributor to retain ownership of their copyright.
- Copyright notices are rarely kept up to date as a file evolves, resulting in inaccurate statements.
- Trying to keep notices up to date, or to correct notices that have become inaccurate, increases the burden on developers without tangible benefit.
- Developers and maintainers often do not want to have to worry about e.g. whether a minor contribution (such as a typo fix) means that a new copyright notice should be added.
- Adding many different copyright notices may increase the burden on downstream distributors, when their license compliance processes involve reproducing notices.
- The specific individual or legal entity that owns the copyright might not be known to the contributor; it could be you, your employer, or some other entity.
1 For all of the LF’s projects, copyright in each contribution remains owned by the original copyright owner who makes the contribution. Other organizations and projects outside the LF may use a contribution agreement to require assignment of contributions, meaning that your ownership of copyrights in the contributions is transferred to the entity maintaining the project. You should check a project’s contribution terms, mechanisms and policies to make sure you understand the effect of contributing.
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