In many open source projects, there are normally many contributors. Ownership of the code is generally clarified during the process of creating the contributor agreements.

However, who owns the intellectual property? While I'm sure that this may be rectified in these contributor agreements, is it ever made clear? Does the intellectual property fall on who made the plan for the program in the start?

  • How do you define "Intellectual Property"? Can you give an example?
    – Philipp
    Jun 27, 2015 at 12:37
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    I'm pretty sure it's standard, but Google pops this: Intellectual property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.
    – Zizouz212
    Jun 27, 2015 at 12:38
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    But what (besides sourcecode) would in your opinion be relevant intellectual property of a software project?
    – Philipp
    Jun 27, 2015 at 12:45
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    I'd argue that this issue mainly comes up with open source (as closed source software is generally owned by a single organisation and produced as work-for-hire) and as such we shouldn't close it
    – Martijn
    Jun 27, 2015 at 13:45
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    This is very relevant to open source, as it affects the decision of potential contributors on whether to contribute and which projects to trust. If a licence requires waiving your copyright on the code you have submitted, rather than simply permitted others to use it under the licence terms, this will affect who is prepared to contribute. This is a measurable difference between different projects. Jun 27, 2015 at 14:16

2 Answers 2


Intellectual property, while not the same thing as copyright, tends to follow similar patterns.

In a single-owner project, the copyright is entirely theirs, and so is the IP. In a project with multiple contributors and no contributor agreement, the copyright is distributed: each contributor owns the copyright on any contributions he makes. The same applies to the intellectuals.

Lastly, in a project with multiple contributors and a contributor agreement, it depends entirely on the agreement. There may be a copyright transfer and/or a IP transfer clause, or there may be neither. It requires reading the license agreement to know.

Of course, it is also possible to assign the property rights to an entity instead of a person: I'm not sure whether you can simply assign them to the project, but it is certainly possible to create a skeleton company for the project and assign the rights to it. This way, no single person can direct what happens with the property, and no group of people can allow some to be used but not other stuff. Either the company's CEO directs, or the company's board directs.


Sometimes it is made clear in contributor agreements.

When there is no contributor agreement, the author(s) of each part of the code own the intellectual property for the part they wrote.

  • Without being a lawyer or specialist, I have a hunch that that there would implicit ownership according to contributions.
    – James P.
    Jun 9, 2016 at 1:45

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