There are two other questions, specifically related to Licensing and Copyright.

In reviewing the answers and comments, I get the feeling that people generally consider the two to be the roughly same thing. If this is true, why do we worry about both?

It seems to me that they are very different things:

For copyright

  • It exists, without me doing anything to assert it, from the moment of creation.
  • Unless explicitly assigned, or surrendered, it persists regardless of licence chosen for the software.
  • It grants the creator very specific legal rights and remedies (although, these may vary by jurisdiction).
  • Most forms of copyright have a defined duration (usually life + 'n' years).
  • In an open source project, every contributor retains copyright in their own contributions.

For the Licence

  • It is a legal document
  • I have to explicitly choose, or create, the license. It does not apply automatically.
  • It grants users of the software specific, and limited, rights.
  • Unless stated in the Licence itself, or until it is revoked, it remains enforceable in perpetuity.


Are they aspects of the same thing, or do they actually serve two different populations (producers and consumers)?

  • 3
    This sounds like a legal document. Preamble... Oh dear... :/ But excellent question. :) – Zizouz212 Jun 24 '15 at 21:41
  • Nah, a preamble is a series of zeroes and ones to pump up the charge in the receiving radio :) – kdopen Jun 24 '15 at 22:33
  • With most licenses, you don't enforce the license, you enforce the copyright. That one has a license is a defense to an accusation of copyright infringement. (EULAs and shrink wraps are exceptions. But this applies to true licenses like the GPL, the Apache license, and so on.) – David Schwartz Feb 21 at 22:05

Copyright is the legal term used to declare and prove who owns the intellectual property (the code, text, etc.).

Licensing is the legal term used to describe the terms under which people are allowed to use the copyrighted material.

You can think of it in terms of physical property, if you want, the copyright is like the "deed" to a house. It says you own the house. If you want, you can rent the house out to someone, and that rental agreement is the 'license'.

Copyright is different to a "deed" in that it is possible to license the material in different ways, to different people, all at the same time.

Like a "deed", though, you can sell ownership of the code to someone else, and that would be called a copyright transfer.

Only the copyright owner (or their agent) can enter in to a license agreement.


A notable exception to your "every contributor retains copyright in their own contributions":

Many large projects use a Contributor License Agreement that specifies that copyright for contributed code is transferred from the code's author to the project/organization.

  • Yep. I was thinking of that with the "Unless explicitly assigned, or surrendered," point under copyright, – kdopen Jun 24 '15 at 22:30

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