Let's say I have published some code, and have relinquished all copyright interest to that code by some extremely permissive license (e.g. unlicense).

Can a corporation take my code, republish it under a proprietary license, then sue me for being in breach of that new license?

  • 7
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's a legal question.
    – Blrfl
    Mar 8 '15 at 18:20
  • 3
    @Ixrec this is totally wrong. Legal questions are allowed in many many SE sites.
    – o0'.
    Mar 8 '15 at 20:28
  • 5
    What would stop them from suing you completely at random, even if they weren't using your code?
    – o0'.
    Mar 8 '15 at 20:30
  • 3
    @Ixrec boardgames.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/legal as I said, plenty. And that's a good thing. I can't stand the stupid mania of closing them.
    – o0'.
    Mar 8 '15 at 20:42
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    Hello this is OP. I appreciate that my question haven't been closed, but I would also appreciate if you moved this discussion to Meta instead. Mar 8 '15 at 20:46

If you can prove that you published the code prior to when they did and you had no access to it when it was unreleased then you can counter plea that they took it from you.

The result is a open/shut case where they will end up paying all legal fees (plus reimbursement for slander if applicable) and the only cost to you is the time spent defending yourself.

If the code is stored online and both parties are in the USA then this will fall under OCILLA which means that they first need to notify you (with a DMCA takedown request) and give you the chance to take it offline. You then have the chance to counter file and then if you were in the clear (or don't hear back in 2/3 weeks) you can put the code up again.

  • 6
    "Can they" and "would they be successful" are two different questions. Even an open and shut case costs money and substantial amount of time and there is no way to guarantee that you will get legal fees paid (or even recover them if there is an order to repay). If you use an OSI license you might be able to get legal help with that but it's hard to say.
    – Elin
    Mar 8 '15 at 19:40
  • Big companies can drag court cases on for many years, even when the case is clearly "open and shut". Just because a case is ruled in your favor doesn't mean you'll be collecting money anytime in the foreseeable future. Also, don't discount the time spent defending yourself. If a well funded lawyer knows lost time is a significant impact to you (and especially your business finances) then using up as much of your time as possible will certainly become a major part of their case strategy against you in an effort to force you to settle or drop the case.
    – Dunk
    Mar 9 '15 at 16:18

A license generally affects you when you acquire, use, or distribute a piece of software that comes with the license. If you never acquire, use or distribute Evil Corp's version of your project, then there's simply no way any sane license they apply to it could possibly affect you.

Now, if they release a modified version of your project under a proprietary license, and you do something like incorporate their improvements into your permissively licensed version, then Evil Corp has every right to come after you for that. But as long as you don't do anything silly like that, you should have nothing to worry about.


The only way that a copyright can be created is by creating a work. If you create the software, you have the copyright. If you then relinquish the copyright (although I'm not quite sure if that is really possible), then there is no copyright for the work, and there is no possibility of creating one. So nobody can sue you successfully.

Of course they can sue you. Anybody can sue you if they feel like it.


A license agreement is a kind of contract. Wikipedia writes:

In order for a contract to be formed, the parties must reach mutual assent (also called a meeting of the minds). This is typically reached through offer and an acceptance which does not vary the offer's terms, which is known as the "mirror image rule".

That is, unless you sign (or otherwise accept) the offered license, no contract is formed, and nothing can be breached ... and unless you wanted to do something with the proprietary code, there is no reason for you to accept such an agreement.

  • Well then I guess the question becomes: Can they attack me for something else? Piracy? Mar 9 '15 at 1:43
  • Only if you pirate their code. The code you invented yourself remains yours to do with as you please - unless of course you were to agree to a contract that says otherwise.
    – meriton
    Mar 9 '15 at 2:46
  • So if they take the public domain'ed code and republish it under some hostile proprietary license, that means they can call it "theirs" right? So in that case, by continuing to publish the code, how is that different from pirating their code? Mar 9 '15 at 2:55
  • @user11177 They can claim the rights, but unless otherwise contracted they do not gain rights by publishing it. In most jurisdictions they do not gain rights to the public domain code by adding their own license.
    – BillThor
    Mar 9 '15 at 5:15
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    @user11177 Consider how your proposed "makes it theirs" argument sounds when applied to a non-code public domain work. A company takes an image of the Mona Lisa painting and sells copies for thousands of dollars under a proprietary license. Can they sue me for displaying a copy of the Mona Lisa that I got off Wikipedia? Can the company sue the Louvre museum for displaying the actual Mona Lisa? I'm no lawyer, but I surely hope the answer to these question is "no". (If you're concerned about the case where the company changes it, suppose their Mona Lisa has a mustache drawn on it.)
    – apsillers
    Mar 9 '15 at 13:15

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