I have recently taken some time to study different licenses and I was wondering: If I have a open source project and other people contribute, how do I receive the copyright? Or is it possible to not only be allowed to use/modify/etc. the contributed code but to force the contributors to transfer their copyright to the project?

  • It's possible to do almost anything. Why would I give up my intellectual property to you though - what are you giving me as compensation? Jul 26, 2022 at 15:56
  • I thought about this more as contributors give up their copyright to a project for a good purpose. Why would someone do that? Well if people dont and the project leaders would like to change something (e.g. upgrade the license) they would need to ask all contributors if they are fine with that. Also my question is not about why you would do that but how it would be possible.
    – René
    Jul 26, 2022 at 16:25
  • Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer.
    – Community Bot
    Jul 26, 2022 at 19:19
  • 1
    Consider that people possibly don't like to trust you, but want to contribute only on the conditions of the license as stated by the project Jul 26, 2022 at 20:21
  • The Free Software Foundation actually does this with the GNU Project's software (see here for reasoning). Aug 8, 2022 at 18:52

1 Answer 1


To receive the copyright from contributors on their contribution(s) to your project, you need to ask them to sign a legal document called a Copyright Transfer Agreement (CTA). This agreement must have legally accepted signatures, so that often means dealing with actual paperwork.

A CTA makes all the code yours to do with as you please. That could be a detractor for some people that otherwise might consider contributing to your project.

If you just want to have some additional rights, for example to distribute contributions made to a copyleft community edition also in a closed-source commercial edition, then you can ask your contributors to sign a Contributor License Agreement (CLA). A CLA is also a legal document that requires legally recognized signatures and it typically grants you a permissive license in how you can use the contribution, without the contributor giving up their rights.

But the most common way of running an open source project is to just accept contributions under the same license as what you distribute the project with. And if you use a license with built-in upgrade possibility (like "GPLv3 or later"), that does not hinder you in following the defined license upgrade path.

  • So if I run a open source project under the GPLv3 license for example, the contributed code is automatically also GPLv3 and I can edit/share/etc. the code as long as I dont violate the license?
    – René
    Jul 27, 2022 at 10:33
  • @René For GPL, I think what you said is correct, but the details depend on the license. For example, so-called permissive licenses like MIT would allow ("permit") incorporation into closed source projects (which may have a different license themselves). For GPL, that kind of combinations would not be allowed.
    – Brandin
    Jul 27, 2022 at 11:52

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