I'm working on a software project where so far I'm the sole developer. As of right now the code is unlicensed, but the copyright of whatever I've written belongs to me (this is true at least in North America AFAIK).

Before I release the software to the public, I'm going to license its distribution, probably under something like MPL or GPL.

Question 1: As the original copyright holder, does this effect me in anyway? Or do I still have unrestricted distribution rights?

Question 2: After some time, more developers join the project. Now much of source code copyright belongs to me+contributors. How do distribution rights work for the authors now?



4 Answers 4


A lot of your confusion will go away if you keep in mind that copyright and licensing are two completely separate things.

Copyright is owned by the original author. (Unless it was produced under a "work for hire" contract, in which case it is owned by the employer. This most likely doesn't apply to your project.) Copyright can be sold or otherwise transferred.

Licensing is the copyright owner giving other people the permission to use their work in specific ways, under specific conditions. Distribution of a work under a license does not transfer copyright rights. (Unless the license specifies that it does, of course, but no open-source license I know of does this.)

This has two important implications for open-source projects:

  • If you license your own code, that you hold the copyright to, under an open-source license, there is nothing stopping you from licensing it to someone else under completely different terms, because you still hold the copyright.
  • If you are running an open-source project with multiple contributors, you do not own the copyright to work that other people have submitted, unless they explicitly transferred copyright to you. Since you don't own the copyright on the entire project, you do not have the right to distribute the entire project under an alternate license unless you've made sure to get permission to do so from every contributor.

If you're worried about this, the best way to take care of this is to make sure that every contributor agrees to allow you to manage licensing before you merge any of their contributions into the main project.


FYI if you are employed as a programmer in the USA, then depending on your state of residence, your employee contract, what your employer does, and what the software you wrote does, it may or may not belong to your employer. Even if you wrote it in your own time, on your own computer.

Check your employment contract, then consult with a lawyer if you are concerned. (Be warned, many legal documents assert things that are false because they are overridden by statutory law, and will have other things with surprising consequences because of precedent and statutory law. One job of a lawyer is to sort this out and tell you the difference between the document you read, and what is enforceable.)

Assuming you are the copyright holder, let's answer your question. As for licenses, a license is a grant of permission to use the software. It only binds you if you accept the license. And it protects you from lawsuits from the copyright holder. However as the copyright holder you can grant yourself any permissions you want, and you're unlikely to sue yourself. (Of course if someone else holds copyrights to some of the material, you'll need their permission...)

As always, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. But I think this advice is worth every cent you paid for it. :-)


Not being a lawyer and being in the US... Your copyright is unaffected by the license you choose, the license applies to other people who use your software under that license.

Also not being a lawyer... New contributors will own their respective copyrights unless they sign that over to you, however new contributors will have to accept that their new work will be licensed under the project's conditions.

So in my not lawyerly summation: individual authors own copyright on stuff they write, but the project as a whole is licensed separately for use.


Regarding #2, if you want to change licensing (relicense), I believe you will need permission from the people who contributed (or at least a significant amount, if it's a large project) since as you say, they hold the copyright for their own code. For a real-life example of this, see the Mozilla project. You might be able to avoid this by having contributors sign off on some type of provision up-front as a condition of accepting code contributions.

Note: I'm not a lawyer, so what I've said may not be correct. This is not legal advice.

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