Is the MIT software license itself copyrighted? What about the BSD license? Could a person copy parts of the license or significantly alter the license for their own use? I've searched but wasn't able to find a source one way or another.

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    In practical terms, you can change anything you like in the MIT license, but if you do that, it won't be the "MIT License" anymore; it will be the "Oaktree License." Sep 28, 2016 at 19:55
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    Keep in mind any license like that has had a lot more legal analysis than anything you would do yourself, unless you are a lawyer and comfortable writing that sort of legal document.
    – enderland
    Sep 28, 2016 at 21:03
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    Everything that anyone has ever written is automatically copyrighted. The real question is whether or not the writer allows you to copy their work. That the MIT license allows this seems self-evident; in fact, it is a requirement: "The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software." Sep 28, 2016 at 21:15
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    @RobertHarvey Presumably there is a distinction of being required to copy it verbatim as a contractual requirement, and being able to use it as the basis of further work?
    – kwah
    Sep 28, 2016 at 21:56
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    There are a number of variants of the MIT license. It's not clear (to me) how those variants were created. The license was authored and published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. An important question is: Has MIT formally licensed the license, permitting people to create copies and variants without further permission? Note that the GPL, unlike the MIT License, includes an explicit copyright notice, followed by "Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies of this license document, but changing it is not allowed."
    – Keith Thompson
    Sep 28, 2016 at 22:29

3 Answers 3


Anything anybody writes is automatically copyrighted (there are exemptions, but I don't think they apply in this case). Therefore, yes, the MIT License is copyrighted, and you can't copy or modify it, regardless of whether you change the name or not.

Analysis: is the MIT License copyrighted? It needs to be a work (check) of authorship (check) that is original … originality can for example be measured by whether or not there are multiple different ways of phrasing the idea. If there is only one possible way of expressing the idea, then the expression is not copyrighted (ideas can't be copyrighted, only their expression), however, if there are multiple ways of expressing it, then the mere fact of choosing one of those ways constitutes a creative act of originality. And even though legalese is a pretty formalized and restrictive language, there are still multiple ways of expressing the ideas embodied by the MIT License, so the MIT License is original and thus copyrighted.

Analysis: can you copy and modify the MIT License? In order to use the MIT License at all, you must copy it into your code. So, clearly, there is an implicit license allowing you to do just that. However, at least in the jurisdictions I am familiar with, such implicit licenses are generally interpreted very narrowly by the courts. So, the license allowing you to copy the MIT License allow applies to copying it into your source code verbatim in order to apply it to your own code. It does not apply to copying it in order to base your own license off of it. And it certainly does not give the right to create a derived work.

There is one other thing that you didn't ask about, that I want to mention: the MIT License has been carefully crafted, analyzed, reviewed, re-reviewed, and re-re-reviewed by MIT's copyright lawyers to make sure that there are no unintended freedoms nor unintended restrictions, no hidden side-effects, loopholes, or surprises of any kind. I urge you to hire not one but several copyright lawyers to subject the changes you want to make to the same scrutiny, lest you fall victim to some unforeseen interactions, side-effects, or loopholes your changes or additions might accidentally create.

Note: I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV. Copyright Law is tricky business, you should really consult a lawyer first, a) about the legality of copying the license, and b) even more importantly about any modifications you make to the license, to ensure that you don't accidentally rip a huge hole into it that you don't intend to.

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    Well, without copying privileges, you wouldn't be able to use the MIT license in your own projects at all. Sep 28, 2016 at 21:10
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    Anything anybody writes is automatically copyrighted That's not true. Certain things are eligible for copywrite, and others aren't. I don't know whether a licence does or doesn't, but it certainly can't be taken as an assumption that it is.
    – Servy
    Sep 28, 2016 at 21:15
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    @Servy: In the United States, assuming that a creative work is otherwise eligible (i.e. it meets the required standards for originality, etc.), it is automatically under copyright the moment the author creates it. Sep 28, 2016 at 21:18
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    @RobertHarvey Is a legal contract a creative work?
    – Servy
    Sep 28, 2016 at 21:19
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These texts are likely not entirely original and may be remotely copyrightable. But the question I would rather ask would be:

If I copy parts of the license or significantly alter the license for my own use, can someone object to this copying and sue me for copyright infringement?

What would be the license terms that apply to these license texts? the license terms would apply to themselves.

Who could have the ground to sue? The original author, possibly indirectly the UC Regents or the MIT.

What would be their incentive? they have absolutely nothing to win there.

The likeliness that someone would sue me is zero. And if they would, I would assume that any sane judge would dismiss this as frivolous.

Now say I am really worried about this and I am truly paranoid: in the worst case the BSD or MIT license would also apply to their own terms. Hence I could modify the license text and also keep the original text to state that this applies to my modified text. (but I would not do this, this would be only for the crazy and the paranoid).

As a side note, both texts date from the late 80's. Both contain similar sentences and both have been used as the base for many other licenses and variants such as the Apache license(s). Both texts also likely have been based on pre-existing legalese boilerplate. Both texts are unlikely truly original themselves, and surely derived from other ancestor texts. All this would make claiming any copyright on these short texts rather difficult.


You need a license permitting you to fork the MIT license.

Governing what can be copied or copied and modified is what this and other types of licenses is for. It follows directly that no license can license itself.

MIT wrote this license. They are the Copyright holders of the text.

If MIT has not released the text under another license permitting copying and modification, it falls under the implied automatic copyright enforced by law in most countries.

Unless you hold a license to copy and modify, or just copy verbatim, the MIT License file, you are violating this automatic Copyright that MIT holds for having written it.

From the text's impact on the industry, a lawyer could convincingly claim it a work of significance, and most of those working in said industry would a) lack the funds to find a defense lawyer better than MIT's, and b) lack the time and money appeal to higher court.

This is not a joke. If MIT did not provide a license to copy, let alone copy and modify, the license text their lawyers missed a trick. And without it the question is logical as well as understandable.

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