Any publicly-addressed content license which is not just a mere custom legal notice is a public content license because it was developed by one entity for licensing generally any content by generally any entity.

Public content licenses can be, for example:

  • Public domain licenses (FOSS)
  • Creative Commons licenses (Possibly FOSS)
  • GNU General Public Licenses (FOSS)
  • Digital Right Management license (non FOSS)

Because every license is eventually a piece of content; I assume it also needs a license; using a license to license itself would lead to circular logic - is that a problem in the content licensing world? If so, one solution is to ship any public license with just a mere custom legal notice

  • 2
    What actual practical problem are you trying to solve here? Lots of things are possible, it doesn't mean they're sensible or even on-topic for this site. Nov 16, 2020 at 15:07
  • There is no "problem to solve" here but me trying to understand from people much more knowledgeable than me in the subject of software license if such a case of circular logic is a problem or not. Nov 16, 2020 at 15:35
  • Do you have an example of a software license which has such circular licensing? If not, this seems to be a somewhat made-up problem. Nov 16, 2020 at 15:37
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    Why would it be a problem? If you write a License that says "all code must be written in red font", and you apply that license to the license itself; would it be a problem to write that license file in red font?
    – Opifex
    Nov 16, 2020 at 15:38
  • @PhilipKendall I don't know a content license that licenses itself; I am trying to understand if it can be a problem; I remind that no one must answer the question. Nov 16, 2020 at 15:41

4 Answers 4


This is a problem for mathematicians, not for lawyers.

The first problem is that you assume all content needs a license. That's directly denying the Public Domain, or any reason that copyright may not apply.

Even if certain content would need a license in order to be copied, that doesn't mean it needs a license. The consequence is simply that the content can only be copied by its author, as the author doesn't need a license. This is actually fairly common; a painting typically does not need a license. The normal use is to hang the painting on the wall, and you can do that without a license.

Note that even if a particular work does have a license, the details of that license may be private to the licencor and licensees. So you can hardly ever assume the absence of a license, even when nothing is publicly known about that.

On a type-theoretical note, FOSS is Free and Open Source Software. Since contracts are not software, they're by definition not FOSS either.


I am not sure that this turns up anywhere, and licences (being not software) don't need a FOSS licence. However, I don't think it would be a problem, and here is why.

Copyright law does not stop you from reading a document, that you have, or from running a program that you have. It only stops you from making copies.

Therefore you can read the licence. You can then use your now freedom to make copies. So long as you follow the rules set out in the licence.


Because every license is eventually a piece of content; I assume it also needs a license; using a license to license itself would lead to circular logic - is that a problem in the content licensing world? If so, one solution is to ship any public license with just a mere custom legal notice

You are correct that the text of a copyright license is itself also protected by copyright. Most copyright licenses do not acknowledge that fact and thus don't contain a license for the text of the copyright license.

A very strict reading of copyright law would mean that only the author of a copyright license would be allowed to reproduce the license text. But judges are not machines that literally apply the the law. They are humans who can also look at the circumstances. If a license text gives a recipient the right to reproduce and redistribute a work that is covered by the license, then the recipient of the covered work must by necessity also receive a license to reproduce the license text verbatim, even if that was not spelled out explicitly.

For those licenses that do acknowledge copyright protection of their text, they invariably have a rather restrictive license for the license text, ranging from only allowing verbatim copies to allowing you to re-use the license terms under the condition that you call the license something else.

Releasing the text of a license (open-source or not) under permissive terms is something that can cause great confusion because it will invariably result in multiple, widely different, licenses that go by the same name. The end result is that those licenses will be shunned by any project that takes itself serious.


Actually, this is a pretty good question.

GNU may or may not consider its license to be licensed by its own license (yes, that's circular, and it can give you a headache), the more common problem is copyright.

The originator of the license (or terms of use, or any other form of contract explicit or implicit) has automatic copyright protection for their written licenses. In other words, you don't have the right to simply copy-and-paste a convenient chunk of license (or an entire license) for your own commercial purposes.

  • This is factually incorrect; the GNU GPL is absolutely definitely not licensed under the GPL - literally the first paragraph of the GPL specifies that it may not be modified. Nov 17, 2020 at 7:30
  • @PhilipKendall While the second paragraph's assumption ("I suspect...") may be "factually incorrect." The answer, which talks about copyright, is factually correct. Nevertheless, I'll update the first paragraph so that the bulk of the answer gets past the dismissal more smoothly.
    – JBH
    Nov 17, 2020 at 14:23

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