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In the document “How to use GNU licenses for your own software”, the FSF says:

For software with several releases over multiple years, it's okay to use a range (“2008-2010”) instead of listing individual years (“2008, 2009, 2010”) if and only if every year in the range, inclusive, really is a “copyrightable” year that would be listed individually; and you make an explicit statement in your documentation about this usage.

I’ve added emphasis to the last clause, which seems like overkill to me. Is this motivated by any real legal requirement or is it just a belt-and-braces approach to specifying the copyright years?

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    When dealing with copyright - you're dealing with a legal issue. The range should have no effect on the documentation, so this strikes me as being really absurd. – Zizouz212 May 15 '16 at 15:58
  • FSF - or rather, Richard Stallman - can be really OCD about certain things. My guess when reading this was that this is just one of those things. – Tim Malone May 15 '16 at 22:25
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    I imagine this document, like many others on gnu.org, is written for the kinds of people who must know which way is "better" or "best", even though it doesn't matter. – congusbongus May 16 '16 at 2:29
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In my opinion, that paragraph means absolutely nothing.

Copyright ranges are used to indicate that new versions of the work were made or released, and to indicate the years when those changes were made (and effectively copyrighted). To explain through example, I have a blog. I've posted on that blog for six consecutive years. In my copyright statement, I could write:

(c) 2011-2016 Zizouz212. All Rights Reserved.

That's known as an assertion of copyright. Even though copyright is automatic in many jurisdictions, and is more or less uniform across the world (thanks to the Berne Convention), such as providing evidence that the work was obviously copyrighted, and that a violator of copyright must've known that, but that's more of a court/trial related matter.

There is no relationship between assertion statements and documentation, in the Berne convention, nor in any worldwide copyright law that I know about. I find this "instruction" in the document to be ridiculously odd. What statement could possibly be expected? This really is just nonsense.

If you're using the GPL to licence your software, the steps in doing so are incredibly simple.

  1. Include the licence file
  2. Provide a copyright statement that states what terms the software is distributed under
  • And as a side note, all these variations in way copyright statements can be written is, well, kinda fun... See the code in github.com/nexB/scancode-toolkit/blob/… .... to deal with all the variants including date ranges and such, this makes things a tad more engaged that expected. – Philippe Ombredanne May 17 '16 at 5:46
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Just because something doesn't make sense to us laypeople doesn't mean that it doesn't make sense in a court of law, which is where these types of details are decided in fine. The FSF presumably has good reason to write this...

The first point to remember is that documenting copyright years serves to determine the date at which works fall out of copyright.

The Berne Convention leaves "implementation details" up to individual countries. In the US (which is the relevant country for FSF documents), copyright notices are defined by Title 17, Chapter 4; for "visually perceptive copies" (which includes software), they take the form

© year name

where

  • © is specifically that symbol (not "(c)", which has no legal value), and can be replaced by "Copyright" or "Copr." (§ 401(b)(1)),
  • year is the year of first publication of the work, or the year of first publication of the compilation or derivative work if relevant,
  • name is the name of the owner of the copyright.

What counts is years of publication; for software this is generally considered years in which the software is released. So if you release a piece of software in 2014, and release it again in 2016 without making changes in 2015, the years of publication would be 2014 and 2016, and the copyright notices would be "© 2014" in the first release and "© 2016" in the second release.

In practice new software releases are considered similarly to derivatives, so the copyright notices accumulate; and when the name of the owner doesn't change, notices are merged, e.g. "© 2014, 2016".

The "© 2014-2016" doesn't correspond to anything documented in Title 17 (as far as I can see), which is why its use needs to be explained. To avoid this use being open to interpretation later (when it comes up in court...), it should be documented at the time of use, alongside the use. If it's not documented, it isn't clear whether the notice gives only the years of first and most recent publication (and you don't consider intervening publications as important), or if it specifies that the work was published only in these two years, or if it specifies that the work was published in every year in the range. Hence (I think) the FSF's recommendation.

Note that other communities document different approaches. For example, the Eclipse Foundation uses "Copyright (c) date owner", where "date" can be a single year or the first and last years of publication separated by a comma: "Copyright (c) 2014, 2016" (with no representation as to years of publication in the meantime).

The US Copyright Office's circular 3 has more information on all of this, albeit only single-year forms.

(In practice, these instructions are rarely followed, and copyright notices often have incorrect dates.)

  • The intention of all these copyright notices as absolutely clear, even if they don't formally match some US Title. Any court would uphold them. Practically year ranges serve only to let you know that if you go searching you might be able to find an earlier publication whose copyright will expire earlier. – curiousdannii May 16 '16 at 22:57
  • Your answer provides an interesting and insightful information. Thank you! The OP's quote is likely also subject to interpretation, but I feel that the copyright assertion statement is already documented in itself. In most cases, the individual files have to hold a statement of copyright at the top of the file. Would it not be natural to include the years for the individual files? Also, why doesn't the entire project hold a copyright altogether? Heck, the answers here to the issue are ever so confusing :/ – Zizouz212 May 17 '16 at 0:21
  • @Zizouz212 my views on copyright notices in individual files are well documented ;-). This shows that usage and the law don't match perfectly: developers use copyright notices for documentation of individual software components, (US) law considers them at the level of a complete work. I've wondered about the issue raised in this particular question myself in the past, I find it interesting but I don't have a definitive answer (yet...). – Stephen Kitt May 17 '16 at 7:09
  • @curiousdannii see the current debates in the Google v. Oracle case for examples of "absolutely clear" assumptions being questioned — it happens all the time, anything not written down explicitly is up for interpretation (even written clauses are often up for interpretation...). – Stephen Kitt May 17 '16 at 7:11
  • Re: your first paragraph, has there actually been a court case that would provide any guidance about year ranges? – bdesham May 21 '16 at 14:00

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