A repository owner on GitHub transferred me ownership of a project he abandoned some time ago. I noticed the year in the license file is outdated (2014), and the original author's name is still included.

The license is MIT, but I know I can't reattribute the work to myself. Should I:

  1. Keep the year updated and continue crediting him, even if I'm now the one maintaining the codebase?
  2. Leave the license as-is?
  3. Ask for permission to modify the license?

All things considered, the author's probably not that hung-up on this matter, but I am and I'd prefer to know what the recommended procedure for transferal of ownership is... I didn't, after all, pen the original code...

EDIT: Just to confirm, I've read the question regarding forking an MIT-licensed project. This is different, because it's not forking somebody else's work, it's having it handed over to you in its entirety.

  • This is probably a dupe. You can simply add your name to the license file so it says something like "Copyright Alhadis 2016; Copyright Original Owner 2012-2014" Commented May 7, 2016 at 16:32
  • 1
    Possible duplicate of How should I assert copyright when I'm forking an MIT project? Commented May 7, 2016 at 20:28
  • @Glenn Hmm... It's probably just me, but I really can't imagine them being dupes, yet they are so related... I need to stop the urge to visit every day when I'm not well, especially late at night :/
    – Zizouz212
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 2:11
  • 1
    @GlennRanders-Pehrson It's not a dupe. Other questions focussed more on projects that were forked, not transferred. In this case, the owner has transferred all ownership of the original codebase to me.
    – user5020
    Commented May 8, 2016 at 12:59
  • 1
    Did the author transfer the copyright to you as well? If not, to be safe I'd follow the same advice I gave in that thread linked above. If they did explicitly transfer the copyright as well, then you can do what you'd like - but it's always nice to give credit :)
    – Tim Malone
    Commented May 9, 2016 at 20:22

2 Answers 2


Based on the exchange you've had with the previous repository maintainer, the previous maintainer never transfer ownership of his copyright. This situation is virtually identical (from a copyright and licensing perspective) to forking someone else's freely-licensed repository without coordinating directly with them. The original owner holds copyright on the original code, and you have permission to make your own modifications, which will be under your own copyright.

The only difference here appears to be that the Github repository has been mechanically transferred from being listed under the previous owner's account to being listed under your account. This by itself appears to have no copyright transfer implications. It is merely an easy way for the previous maintainer to signal, "I don't care about updating this project anymore, but this guy does." Having the repo listed under your account doesn't mean anything in copyright terms -- the license text always allowed you to copy the code and post a new copy under your own Github account, which is nearly identical to what has happened here.

Unless the previous maintainer has explicitly authorized a transfer of title making you the new copyright owner, you do not have the right to remove the copyright notice. If you would like to do so (and if you would like the unambiguous ability to completely re-license the entire work in the future) you should ask for the maintainer to completely relinquish copyright to you, which he may or may not wish to do.

Assuming you have participated in a transfer of title and you are now the new copyright owner of the entire work, then, yes, you can remove the copyright notice. this is trivial to see, because the previous copyright holder no longer has any legal standing to take legal action against you, since only the current copyright holder (who is now you) can take legal action against misuse of a work. This hardly seems like a polite thing to do (versus simply adding your own copyright notice as an addition to his), it appears to be a legally valid thing to do, assuming you own the copyright on everything.

Note that outside of the U.S., some jurisdictions have "moral rights" that can never be surrendered, and those moral right may include the right to be acknowledged as an author of a work. It's possible that removing an old copyright notice may run afoul of this moral right in certain jurisdictions, but I'm not sure.

  • Perfect answer, thank you! Yeah, I'm not going to ask for a legal transfer of intellectual property - I'm not interested in taking credit for something I didn't do. I just don't want to publish false info, which I feel I'd be doing if I started crediting him with my efforts. I'll do what's recommended in the linked question, and amend the earlier year range to read 2014-2016. Thanks!
    – user5020
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 5:14
  • @Alhadis 2014 appears to be the last year in which that author made copyrightable changes to the code, though. (All changes since then appear to be merging in other people's work and making trivial version-number changes.) If that's the case, then the year should not be updated; see Is renewal of MIT license needed on github at the beginning of each year?
    – apsillers
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 10:49
  • Well, it's a rather nebulous affair, since the grammar was converted from a TextMate bundle using Atom's default grammar converter. Technically speaking, I'm not sure how copyrightable the work was in the first place... sigh I'm guessing this is the kinda thing that leads one to release their work in the public domain...
    – user5020
    Commented May 11, 2016 at 14:40

The best way to determine a "right" way is to imagine you were the original author. What would YOU consider as the better way?

  • Most likely you would like your original copyright to be kept.
  • Most likely you would have no objections to the new maintainer copyright being added on top as long as there is some new work that was done.
  • Most likely you would appreciate to be contacted for this but would not care too much if this was not the case.

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