I am working on an open sourced project with some developers.

It occurred to me that I was not sure (legally) who the owner actually is due to it being an open source project.

Is the ownership spit equally between us contributors?

If no, how is it calculated?

1 Answer 1


In general, if you write the code, you own the copyright.

You may have written module A, or the file B, or the function C, or the line D. Doesn't matter who else worked on those parts, the parts you write are your own, and the parts you didn't write aren't.

The only difference is that, since this is an open source project, your co-contributors have the same rights as users of the software - they have access to the source, and can freely use, derive, and redistribute the source code to the extent allowed by the license. What they can't do is claim parts they didn't write as their own.

One notable exception is if you explicitly assign the copyright away. This is done so that the project can relicense in the future without having to bother the original authors. A common method of doing so is via Contributor License Agreements. Also, if you are writing code for compensation, check the terms because you're most likely working as a for-hire programmer, where your code is owned by whoever is paying you.

As for who owns the whole, that's a difficult question to answer. Usually this is agreed upon or fought out in court, where one method may be to estimate the number of man-hours each author spent on the project, and multiply by some expected compensation rate. This is no different than how to split assets when a business partnership splits.

  • That isn't quite true. The software as a whole is a joint work, and all (creative) participants have joint ownership of the result. Ownership can't always be traced to e.g. a particular line of code as that line would only make sense in context and so is inseparable from the context. Jun 26, 2015 at 11:10
  • What if you wrote the function, and each line was re-written historically multiple times by different people. Who owns each piece of line, the first person who written the line (in case it still exists), or the recent modifier (depending how far the line has been changed/rewritten)? Or if ownership is per line, then if you changed 5 characters in somebody else line, then you own these 5 characters, and the rest not. And so on.
    – kenorb
    Aug 20, 2015 at 13:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.