I am using a piece of free source code in one of my projects. The source code was written in the 1990s and is available from a website that says the code may be modified and distributed freely. The source files contain no License indication but they have a "Copyright All Rights Reserved" comment. This morning I started to realize that I may have a License problem because my project is published under the GNU General Public License so I tried to contact the owner of the source code. Unfortunately the owner passed away and thus his company ceased work.

What happens to the source code, is its Copyright sill valid, does it have an owner???


3 Answers 3


Copyright gets transferred to those who inherit the estate. That is spouse and children (in most cases).

You really should look at legal sites and / or consult a lawyer.

  • 4
    Correct, although it might not be wife/children, if the person had a will, could be anyone.
    – Orbling
    Commented Jan 18, 2011 at 20:16
  • 12
    You mean spouse and children. Not all programmers are men, nor do all married men have a wife.
    – nohat
    Commented Jan 18, 2011 at 21:30

According to US copyright law, individual copyrights are good for a long period of time (see this chart for details). In the event that the original copyright holder no longer exists either through death or the company is disolved, the copyright is then treated as "real property" (as in real estate) would be in that situation. In short it is bequeathed to whomever is left to bequeath it to. Typically the person's will dictates how it is handled, but if the will does not exist or does not address the real property the courts will decide. The default assumption is that the real property goes to the surviving family.


As Oded mentioned it becomes the property of the estate - if it went through probate there will be court records, you can use them to track down the current owner.

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