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I think my case is covered by Who will be the copyright owner of a new file in a forked repository on github?, but I want to be sure that it applies in my situation, too.

I forked a project licensed under a 2-clause BSD-style license. The LICENSE file contains a header, followed by the actual license:

Unless explicitly stated otherwise, the following license applies to all files in this repository:
Copyright (year) (authors)

(The files in the repository have no copyright or license information themselves.)

I edited some of the files in this repository, but forgot to update the copyright until later. In this situation, can my committing new code to the repository without updating the copyright notice be interpreted as transferring copyright to the original authors? Or should this be interpreted as a situation in which the original authors and I share copyright?

Also, what does this mean for the license? Is my added code covered by the same license, or is it unlicensed because I did not update the copyright?

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  • 1
    What is the actual license that you added to your code? If all you wrote is "The following license applies: Copyright (year) (authors)", then that's the same as having no license. See also opensource.stackexchange.com/questions/1720/… Alternatively one might read that as the same license applying as the rest of the code (e.g. 2-clause BSD). However, it'd be better to at least identify which license you want, and ideally to include the text somewhere in the repository for reference.
    – Brandin
    Feb 24 at 11:01
  • @Brandin I applied GPL 3.0, and added headers to all files. But this was two years after my original modifications (it took me that long to realize that there was an issue). So are those modifications only under GPL 3.0, or also under the BSD-style license that the original code was distributed under?
    – user26449
    Feb 24 at 12:02
  • The fact that you are trying to change the license for some files is an important detail here. If you added files to the original repo, but did not mention that you wanted a different license for certain files, then most people will read that to mean that those files were supposed to be under the same license. I.e. if anyone gets any commit from Feb 2020 to Jan 2022, she might assume that the files you added were supposed to be under the same license, since I understand that you didn't mention GPL anywhere on those files, in those commits.
    – Brandin
    Feb 24 at 15:15
  • 1
    Whether the files are "actually" or "legally" under the same license or not is harder to answer. Personally, if I get a project and see that it has a certain license, then I assume it's all under the same license unless there's a clear indication somewhere that some portions are under a different license. Basically, having some particular files in a project under a different license is an unusual situation, and I believe it deserves a special mention in the top level documentation, or it should be organized to make it clear (e.g. in a separate directory with separate LICENSE File).
    – Brandin
    Feb 24 at 15:16
  • @Brandin yes, I agree. I did not mention the new license because I was thinking specifically of people ending up on a version from Feb 2020 to Jan 2022. In the current version I include both licenses, and the readme explains the situation.
    – user26449
    Feb 24 at 15:44

1 Answer 1

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To answer the question in the title of your post:

Who owns copyright if I place code in a repository but do not update the copyright notice?

You own the copyright in any code you wrote. This is always the case, you never give up copyright unless you formally transfer your copyright to another entity, which will generally require a signed contract.

However, this may not actually be the relevant question here - for open source code, who the actual copyright holder isn't doesn't matter too much because the open source license grants everybody the same rights to use the code. This is the question you ask here:

what does this mean for the license? Is my added code covered by the same license, or is it unlicensed because I did not update the copyright?

The answer is that it is unclear. There is a reasonable argument to be made that you obviously intended to make your contributions available under the BSD license, therefore they are. Alternatively, you could argue that because you didn't make your intentions clear the default position should apply and your contributions are unlicensed.

Note that on Github specifically and only on Github, their terms of service make it clear that your contributions would be under the BSD license.

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