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Some open-source licenses contain a copyright notice at the beginning, and then further down in the license text, refer to "the above copyright notice". When these licenses are stored in the SPDX database, they are stored without a specific copyright notice; instead they are essentially templates. For example, the second line in SPDX's MIT reads

Copyright (c) <year> <copyright holders>

Sometimes, this SPDX license template text is used not just to relate the content of a license, but to actually convey the license terms of a work.

For example, the REUSE project, as of version 3.0, recommends the following practice for presenting the licensing and copyright information of a software distribution:

  • Choose a license.
  • Download the plaintext license text from the SPDX database, and place it unmodified in a central LICENSES directory in the distribution.
  • Add a reference to the downloaded license, along with copyright information, in a header section in each of the files in the distribution that the license applies to.

For a license like MIT, this gives rise to a situation where the language of the license is now necessarily subject to interpretation. Namely, what does "the above copyright notice" now refer to? The "copyright notice" that is literally above the license text is a template only, while the relevant copyright notice(s) distributed amongst the set of licensed files are not "above" the statement in the license text.

A very literal interpretation of the license text would seem to be that it requires you to retain the copyright notice template, while not requiring you to retain the copyright message(s) in the licensed file(s) themselves. This is clearly absurd, but this is also clearly what it literally says.

Is this something that someone who is considering adopting this method of conveying license terms should worry about?

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  • So is your question whether the MIT license referring to "the above copyright notice" actually is requiring one to retain the literal line "Copyright (c) <year> <copyright holders>" with the <...> parts remaining there, literally, i.e. the line "Copyright (c) <year>," exactly like that?
    – Brandin
    Jan 24 at 9:56
  • See also this Q&A about multiple copyright notices: opensource.stackexchange.com/questions/886/… If one of those notices is also a "Copyright (c) <year> <person>" line, then although that might look a bit funny, would it really be a practical problem?
    – Brandin
    Jan 24 at 9:58
  • @Brandin To your first question: yes, that's what I'm asking. To your second question: my concern is not so much someone that someone is required to retain "Copyright (c) <year> <copyright holders>" literally (and then add their own notice to that if they choose), my concern is that the license no longer requires them to retain the real copyright notice, which is now located in the source file, not above the statement that refers to it with the preposition "above". Jan 30 at 10:32
  • Could you give an example of a real project where this has been done? It sounds like a simple mistake. As for legal implications, it's an interesting question, but probably the final answer will be that it's not only the MIT license that requires you to retain such notices, even if they're not literally "above" as stated by the MIT license.
    – Brandin
    Jan 30 at 11:52
  • From your REUSE link, currently it says for step 2 "Add copyright and licensing information to each file" and not "and place it unmodified in a central LICENSES". Could you point to where the "REUSE" site recommends this. Again it's probably a simple mistake. With 'unmodified' the intention is probably not that you don't fill in <insert your name here> with your name. In this context, probably the intention is that you don't change the wording of the license text by changing the terms.
    – Brandin
    Jan 30 at 12:39

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