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Say for example, I was to find a github project that was started but not quite complete or that was complete and I wanted to use that code within a larger project but the author of the code has not specified a license for the code, what is the acceptable use of this code? Can I use it for any purpose I like or is there an implicit license on the code?

However I do use the code, I would definitely provide credit and reference to the original author (out of courtesy).

But this then raises two bonus questions:

  • If the code can be used in my project, am I free to then licence that code under the same as the rest of my project or even to just license the code by itself?
  • If you were to add a license to your code at a later date, would that only affect future releases of the code? For example, if I were to fork something unlicensed and then the original author adds an all rights reserved copyright - can the forked code be used as long as it was prior to the addition of the license?
  • 2
    possible duplicate of What is the “default” software license? – gnat Mar 12 '15 at 20:30
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    "I were to fork something unlicensed and then the original author adds an all rights reserved copyright" - by default, these two are the same (the later just specifying it explicitly). See also GitHub needs to take open source seriously and the quote by Brian Doll (GitHub's VP of Marketing) in it. – user40980 Mar 12 '15 at 20:33
  • @gnat I had a look at that question and that was asked in the perspective of the author of the code and so the answers were respectively too. I do not believe that the two additional questions were answered either as they are then questions only relevant to the user of the code. – flungo Mar 12 '15 at 20:36
  • as far as I can tell, first of additional questions is covered in answers over there. As for second one, check another prior question: If someone changes their license, does it apply to previously forked projects under the prior license? and linked to it – gnat Mar 12 '15 at 20:41
  • @gnat The top answers to that question seem to imply that the code could be used, and that people may be wary of using it, but I am happier with MichaelT's answer, that as a developer (rather than a publisher) at least, you should avoid using unlicensed code and assume that it is all rights reserved by 'default'. – flungo Mar 12 '15 at 21:16
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Code without an explicit license is protected by copyright and is by default All Rights Reserved. The person or people who wrote the code are protected as such. Any time you're using software you didn't write, licensing should be considered and abided.

(Brian Doll (GitHub's VP of Marketing))

So, with that taken into account:

If the code can be used in my project, am I free to then licence that code under the same as the rest of my project or even to just license the code by itself?

From Help: Open source licensing at GitHub:

It's your right not to include one with your code or project, but please be aware of the implications. Generally speaking, the absence of a license means that the default copyright laws apply. This means that you retain all rights to your source code and that nobody else may reproduce, distribute, or create derivative works from your work. This might not be what you intend.

Even if this is what you intend, if you publish your source code in a public repository on GitHub, you have accepted the Terms of Service which do allow other GitHub users some rights. Specifically, you allow others to view and fork your repository.

Thus no, you cannot license the code again. There is no relicensing of the default license. You cannot rework it into another work that you release or use to provide services to others (if you can use it in personal projects is something left to the courts and possibly de minimis, but that is something for a court to decide). You can view it and fork it in accordance with GitHub's Terms of Service.


If you were to add a license to your code at a later date, would that only affect future releases of the code? For example, if I were to fork something unlicensed and then the original author adds an all rights reserved copyright - can the forked code be used as long as it was prior to the addition of the license?

Adding a license does not make things retroactive (see If someone changes their license, does it apply to previously forked projects under the prior license?). It only applies to future versions. Note that changing from "no license" to "all rights reserved" is no change. No license is all rights reserved.

  • Excellent answer - covered all my concerns. So if I want to use unlicensed code it would be best to ask the developer to license his or her code or find an alternative? – flungo Mar 12 '15 at 21:07
  • The ability to fork an unlicensed project is rather misleading... hence why I assumed that no license allowed some level of use. – flungo Mar 12 '15 at 21:08
  • 1
    @flungo correct - you need to either get it licensed or find an alternative, and yes it is an issue for GitHub (that article I linked explains some of the issue). The TOS allows for some use (playing around with ideas, seeing how things are done) but doesn't allow for reuse. – user40980 Mar 12 '15 at 21:11
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    I just found this which may be a useful resource for anyone else looking for this information: gnu.org/licenses/license-list.html#NoLicense – flungo Mar 12 '15 at 21:23

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