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If a project using GPL-3.0-or-later doesn't include a copyright notice, does it violate the license? What would the consequences be?

I'm asking because https://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#IWantCredit states:

[...] The GPL requires all copies to carry an appropriate copyright notice.

Should the main LICENSE file in a repository already contain the copyright, or should copyright be handled on a file-to-file basis? (Most project don't do this.)

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  • Are you asking if every sourtce code file must contain a copyright notice in order to satisfy the GPL requirement? In my experience, projects often will just state in each source code the license and the place in the source code, where the license information can be found. Therefore, individual files might not have each an individual copyright notice, but the copyright notice is still there and easy to find.
    – Brandin
    Jul 19 at 9:12
  • Is the project you have in mind completely missing a copyright notice of any kind (i.e. it does not contain "an appropriate copyright notice" at all)?
    – Brandin
    Jul 19 at 9:24
  • There is no copyright notice anywhere. They just use the LICENSE file provided by GitHub and copied the standard GLP-3.0-or-later license notice into every source file, again without copyright notice.
    – mkl
    Jul 19 at 11:08

2 Answers 2

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It depends on why you're releasing under GPL. If you're the sole rightsholder, and so not bound by the GPL, the obligations of GPLv3 s5a don't apply to you, and you can release without any particular text at all. If, however, you're required to release your work under GPLv3 by virtue of it being a derivative of a GPLv3 work, then s5a applies, which in turn invokes s4, which requires that "you conspicuously and appropriately publish on each copy an appropriate copyright notice".

We have previously argued that pseudonyms are acceptable, so this requirement is by no means onerous with regard to privacy, and I can't immediately think of any other reason why one should be reluctant.

The possible consequences of GPL violation are too complex and ramified to go into here, but you should avoid knowingly doing it if you can.

Should the main LICENSE file in a repository already contain the copyright, or should copyright be handled on a file-to-file basis?

There is nothing magical about a LICENSE file, neither in copyright law, nor in most licences. Regarding copyright notices, the rubric of the GPL is clear that

It is safest to attach them to the start of each source file [...] and each file should have at least the “copyright” line and a pointer to where the full notice is found

Just because others (as you note) sometimes play a bit fast and loose with this, that is no reason not to follow best practice!

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  • Just for clarity, the second quotation you mentioned about best practice (to attach [the notices] to the start of each source file) is not exactly part of the GPL terms proper, but it follows the GPL, attached under the heading How to Apply These Terms to Your New Programs. I.e. those instructions can be interpreted as best practices, but not necessarily requirements for GPL compliance.
    – Brandin
    Jul 19 at 7:07
  • @Brandin for maximum clarity, I agree with you. How's the above?
    – MadHatter
    Jul 19 at 7:45
  • 1. If I obtain a GPL work released without any copyright notice, and I want to release a verbatim copy, should I attach the "missing" copyright notice, even though the original didn't include one? 2. If I release a modified version ("modified source version"), should I attach two copyright notices, e.g. "Original work Copyright 2021 by Unspecified Author", "Modifications Copyright 2022 by Me"?
    – Brandin
    Jul 19 at 9:30
  • @Brandin I think those are both very good questions, but they're new questions. Might I suggest you ask them as such, possibly linking to this question? You might also want to read this question, which I fear might be regarded as a duplicate.
    – MadHatter
    Jul 19 at 9:39
  • Are they really new questions? Or are they questions that are implied by your paragraph 1? Basically those are the unanswered questions I have for you after reading your paragraph 1. Also it could be that the OP really wanted to ask those questions but forgot to add that detail still (see comment above). Maybe I'll ask it as a new Question if it doesn't get answered. It's something I didn't think about myself until I saw it here.
    – Brandin
    Jul 19 at 9:43
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You can distribute under the GPL v3.0 without a copyright notice. But there is a problem: Just because I see "licensed under GPL v3.0" doesn't mean it is actually licensed. It could have been created by some joker who thinks it's funny to distribute someone else's closed software with a GPL v3.0 notice (it's not funny, because this can create a huge mess).

With the copyright notice, I have at least someone to ask whether it's indeed GPL v3.0 licensed by them. (Very important if you have company lawyers making sure that everything is 100% legal. And they have someone to sue if someone lied about the GPL license).

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