Implications for switching licenses mid-stream

Rick Moen rick at
Wed Apr 23 18:43:04 UTC 2008

Quoting Chris Zumbrunn (chris at

> Write the sentence "Only the copyright holder can relicense." 50 times  
> on the blackboard.

Here's your hypothetical:  I'm lead maintainer of a project issued under
licence A.  You contribute code to the project.  Let's say you are, in
that regard, one of a number of contributors, and that for purposes of
copyright law the codebase is considered a collective work.  (If you are
unfamiliar with the law covering collective works, that is your problem
and is the reason you didn't follow my point.)  

Let's say that, as lead maintainer, I subsequently decide to issue
future releases of the code under licence B, which I judge to better
protect my interests and those of my contributors.  Let's say that the
change is one that is highly unlikely to injure the economic interests
of any of the contributors -- say, from new-BSD to Larry Rosen's AFL. 

Let's say that I'm being unwise and a bit of a jerk in how I handle this
transition, and fail to consult the contributors, let alone secure their
approval, before making the licence change.

OK, you're one of the contributors, and are severely annoyed by not
being consulted.  You feel you've been somehow wronged, and consult your
attorney.  You decide to bring litigation.  One problem:  What's your
specific cause of action?  What exact tort have I committed against you?

I think you'll find that there is, in fact, no tort committed in that

> "The copyright in a compilation or derivative work extends
> only to the material contributed by the author of such work,
> as distinguished from the preexisting material employed in
> the work, and does not imply any exclusive right in the pre-
> existing material. The copyright in such work is independent
> of, and does not affect or enlarge the scope, duration, owner-
> ship, or subsistence of, any copyright protection in the exist-
> ing material. (17 U.S.C. ᅵ 103[b].)"

Sure.  However, there's a logic chasm yawning between that and copyright
violation, that you will not find any bridge across.

> Plus, one could argue that relicense != sublicense. 

Irrelevant to the situation discussed, sir.

Cheers,           "I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate
Rick Moen         those who do.  And, for the people who like country music,
rick at         denigrate means 'put down'."      -- Bob Newhart

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