Question Regarding Copyright Issue For An Open Source Project

David Woolley forums at
Fri Jul 31 07:22:56 UTC 2009

Yan Cheng Cheok wrote:

> Now, the project is getting attention from the public. There are increasing number of programmers are joining in. I was wondering :
> (1) When there is a programmer modify my original source code file, do I need to add his name in the copyright section. But, with the increasing number of programmer, isn't that will keep the header almost unreadable? 
> For example :
>  * Copyright (C) 2009 Yan Cheng Cheok <yccheok at>, John <john at>

The modifier, not you has to do this, although, if they only provide the 
changes, you will need to do it.

The copyright notice is only needed for copyrightable changes.  Trivial 
and obvious changes are not copyrightable.

It's important that as much information about who owns what is 
documented somewhere, and most open source projects are not good at 
this, which can be a problem is any contributor tries to reneque.
> (2) If a programmer add a new source code file, the source code copyright shall belong to whom? Me? Or him?

The contributor.

> (3) If there is a mixed copyright source code in a project, say, 
> A.c, B.c, C.c source code file is copyrighted Yan Cheng Cheok
> D.c, E.c, F.c source code file is copyrighted John
> Will there be an issue? Say, in the future, John decide to switch
> D.c,
+ E.c, F.c using different license, and Yan Cheng Cheok doesn't agree with
+ it...... Who will have a final say then?

Open source licences are traditionally treated as perpertual, so the 
licences on the copies in the code won't change, but it may block a 
change overall. I.E. changing is really adding an alternative licence to 
existing code.

However, this is a controversial subject, as the archives will reveal.

> In order to avoid this type of conflict, shall I enforce all commited
> source code shall be copyright under me? But, I also do not want the new

That is done.  The Free Software Foundation actually does this. 
However, you need to ensure that contributors don't think you will abuse 
that copyright assignment.  The chances are that people will not 
contribute complete files if they feel that they will lose the copyright 
on them.  You would probably want to create an entity that was distinct 
from you and would survive your death, mental incapcity, or a change on 
mind on open source.

The FSF make a token payment for copright assignment, presumably because 
they believe that only a valid contract can suffice.

+ developer feel that his work is not being credited properly.

In many countries, the USA is a notable exception, it is a legal right 
(moral rights) for contributors to request that their contribution be 
> (4) Is there really to have <year> in the copyright information? If I
> put 2009, does that mean in 2010, I am no longer holding the copyright?

Although the copyright notice is required by the GPL, I'm not sure it is 
a legal requirement.  It used to be.

If something is copyright 2009 by a corporate body, I believe the 
copyright remains until 2079.  If it is copyright 2009 by a private 
individual, the copyright will last until at least then, but the actual 
70 years starts when they die.  For the latter reason, it is important 
that copyright attributions can be identified with specific individuals. 
  I'm not sure what the rules are for pseudonyms, intended to hide the 
true identity.

The date is the date of first publication.

CAUTION.  I am not a lawyer and there are no guarantees that anything 
above is legally correct.

David Woolley
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