I have a project that I created under GPL (I am copyright holder). The mistake I made is I deciding to go closed source, in doing that I removed the open source download access and removed the project from sourceforge.

A third party came in and recreated the project on sourceforge (under the same name) with the last GPL release and plans to modify the software. (For download access)

Is it required by GPL that any branches of the project by under a new name?


"Sometimes control over modified versions is proposed as a means of preventing confusion between various versions made by users. In our experience, this confusion is not a major problem. Many versions of Emacs have been made outside the GNU Project, but users can tell them apart. The GPL requires the maker of a version to place his or her name on it, to distinguish it from other versions and to protect the reputations of other maintainers.


The third party and I decided to leave the project page in place and redirect users to a new page for the open source version. This way the old page serves a purpose of notifying former users of the status of the project.

  • I've added a bit more in an answer, I work with OSI approved licenses every day.
    – user131
    May 2, 2011 at 0:13

5 Answers 5


You are reading the FAQ but you need to find the corresponding section in the GPL itself. I am not providing you with advice but it may be that this sentence is the one being referred to:

The work must carry prominent notices stating that you modified it, and giving a relevant date.

This suggests to me that the modified work cannot look like it came from you. It must be easy to determine that although the work originated from you, it was modified by them. And the name referred to is their actual name, not the project name.


I just fixed some "you" vs. "them" references. It's a little confusing because the "you" in the GPL sentence refers to the modifier which is "them" to "us"!


This is an interesting and (somewhat cyclical) caveat in the GNU GPL, both version 2 and version 3. There is an accepted answer to this question, but I'm on a bit of a personal mission to help clear up a lot of the repeat confusion regarding software licenses that I see posted here.

The direct answer to your question is, you can do whatever you want with anything you own. The GPL is a license that you chose, in order to assert your copyright and ensure that everyone who distributes your software gives recipients the same freedoms you had with it. The GPL assumes, however that the project will be "GPL Forever", and doesn't really consider your scenario.

The teeth of the GPL kick in only when you distribute software1, and yes it does guarantee access to source code. However, in your case, you are perfectly free to take the project down and no longer provide source code. If you feel really guilty about it, you can take yourself to court - which is really the point of the matter. The license protects your wishes by asserting your copyright. There is no recourse to speak of if you decide to make the code proprietary because you own it.

This is often not the case in projects that have many contributors who don't sign copyright assignments prior to contributing. If that were the case, you would no longer be the sole owner of the work. Then things would get interesting:

  • At this point, you can't remove the project without permission from all copyright holders. Well, you can, but anyone can make the last GPL-covered snapshot available anywhere - you gave them the right to do that.
  • At this point, you need permission from all copyright holders to create a proprietary fork, or a dual license scheme.

The thing to do, in either case is to make a private / proprietary fork of the project and declare it dead on the SF project page. As you have seen, nothing prevents someone else from publishing your code base, up to the last GPL covered revision and going their own way with it. They are simply exercising the rights you gave them at the time that they received the software. That is just the GPL working as advertised, ensuring whatever you released under it remains free - no matter what :)

Also, think about downstream distributors that have shared binary packages; don't cut off their access to the source code of the last GPL version to give to folks that received only the compiled version from them with a promise of source availability. With the GPL, the person that owes you code is the person you got the compiled version from, and folks will hold them on the social hook for it, even if it's not their fault that they can't provide it.

As far as the license goes, no, you didn't make a technical mistake. However, you did make a bit of a social blunder.

1 The same teeth also ensure that there is no discrimination against fields of endeavor (e.g. run the program, for any purpose) or any other additional restrictions beyond the scope of the license, however that's sort of irrelevant for this question.

  • Better check with a lawyer before you pull this trick. Anyone who received your software directly from you, under GPL terms will have legal rights to the source. You cannot prematuraly revoke those rights: "written offer, valid for at least three years and valid for as long as you offer spare parts or customer support for that product model" (option 6b, when you're not distributing source alongside binaries)
    – MSalters
    May 2, 2011 at 12:04
  • 1
    @MSalters: That's not the only way you can distribute source, just a common way. IIRC, it's also possible to simply provide source alongside the binary, without a continuing commitment. In that case, anybody who grabbed the source while the grabbing was good is OK, but anybody who didn't isn't owed a copy of the source. May 2, 2011 at 13:49
  • @MSalters: If there is a GPL violation, then the copyright holder can sue the offender. Nobody else can. If I remove my own GPL licensed work, and you want the source code and I don't give it to you, you can ask me politely to sue myself, and I'll answer politely "no". Unless someone has the code AND the source code, the project is dead, because nobody can distribute it and follow the GPL requirements.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 18, 2016 at 0:16
  • @gnasher729: The problem is that you might be sued not for copyright violation but for breach of contract. If you promised a customer the source code and sublicensing rights, and subsequently withdrew that offer, that might form a material breach. As I said, check a lawyer, because it isn't trivial to determine what promise you might have made. And as David Thornley added, the devil is in the details.
    – MSalters
    Jan 18, 2016 at 0:34

The issue isn't a GPL related one but a Trademark issue, which is a completely different set of rules from Copyright issues which is what the GPL license is about.

The name is a Trademark, if you don't want them using your name for the project, you can use Trademark law to accomplish this.

Of course a friendly letter that lets them know you own the Trademark to the project name and desire they use a different name is the first course of action.

You can site the GPL requirement for clearly marking the project modified, and by using your name they are violating Trademark and Copyright as well.

For good measure you might want to go ahead and let SourceForge know about the issue as well so they can take action if the other party initially doesn't respond favorably to your request.

If they refuse, then the next course of action is to contact a Trademark attorney.


No, it is not required that the project name be changed.

  • Even if he makes a derivative work? May 1, 2011 at 17:27
  • IANAL but I do not believe his work is "derivative", and I'm not sure that it would matter even if it was. May 1, 2011 at 17:36
  • He is planning derivative work Then what does:"Sometimes control over modified versions is proposed as a means of preventing confusion between various versions made by users. In our experience, this confusion is not a major problem. Many versions of Emacs have been made outside the GNU Project, but users can tell them apart. The GPL requires the maker of a version to place his or her name on it, to distinguish it from other versions and to protect the reputations of other maintainers."" mean? May 1, 2011 at 17:37
  • Well, for one thing, it provides a counterexample: there are many versions of Emacs aside from the original, some more or less derivative, that still call themselves "Emacs". May 1, 2011 at 17:38
  • Then what does this statement mean? Where do they put "their name" May 1, 2011 at 17:45

If the project name can be used as trademark you may be able to force him to change the project name since it would misled users from your original project.

Check with your lawyer.


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