While looking for open source projects I stumbled across a very interesting one. After further digging I found that it was also abandoned. PERFECT!! I can take over I thought, this led me to ask the question:

My question:

If a project is abandoned and I take over, does the owner of the project / license become mine?

If no, why not? How could I do this?

  • You don't need to mark questions as testing the boundaries - all questions are testing the boundaries whether intentionally or not. You can just go ahead and ask the question, and the community will decide whether it is in scope. Jun 27, 2015 at 15:51
  • Or rather, adding that part as a comment, for small discussion in comments
    – Zizouz212
    Jun 27, 2015 at 16:49
  • 1
    The question title and the actual question differ considerably - "use", as in a user using software, is usually not limited or even regulated by open source licenses in any way. Jun 27, 2015 at 18:07
  • A read at wikipedia's article about abondonware should help en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abandonware Jun 27, 2015 at 20:36

2 Answers 2


There are a number of issues to consider.

First, to answer the main question: you are legally allowed to use any abandoned open source project, the fact that it's abandoned doesn't change your rights.

Second, the fact that it's abandoned doesn't change its owners rights; in particular, copyright remains with the creators. But for an open source project that isn't particularly important, unless you wish to change the license. (Note too that in some jurisdictions copyright is non-transferable, or not fully transferable.)

Third, there's the issue of continued maintenance. Of course you can fork an open source project; in the vast majority of cases you can continue using the same name etc. What will be more difficult is recovering the original web sites if any, source code repositories etc. If the original maintainer(s) is/are still reachable, you can try asking them; if they haven't disappeared off the face of the earth there's a fair chance they'll be happy to pass the maintenance on to you! If they're not, and the hosting company (Sourceforge, Github etc.) don't have a process in place, things will be a bit more complicated: you'll need to contact various sites and organisations where the software you're taking over is mentioned, and tell them about the change. Generally speaking once you've proven you're a worthy maintainer, the transition will happen, and your new web site or code repository will end up being considered the authoritative source for the project. This becomes much easier once your new versions of the project are adopted by downstream distributions...

I did this a while ago for the Linux console project; it was dormant upstream, and I was maintaining the package in Debian, adding more and more patches as time went by. At that time Sourceforge had a process in place for requesting a maintenance change; they contacted the original maintainer who OK'd the transition, and I became administrator of the Sourceforge project. No copyrights were changed: the original copyrights remain in place on the pre-existing code; but given that I had (and have) no plans to change the license, that's not an issue.


An open source license which fulfills the open source definition gives you the right to fork a project, make modifications, and distribute this derived work, even in exchange for money. These should be all the rights you need to take over and keep the project alive.

But that does not make you the copyright owner. The original copyright still belongs to the original author(s). Although you are the copyright owner of any modifications you make. This results in a work of mixed copyright. The old parts are copyrighted by the old author(s) and the new parts are copyrighted by you.

When the project is under a permissive open source license, it might allow you to distribute the software under a different license, as long as some conditions are fulfilled (usually leaving the copyright message and license of the original authors intact). A share-alike license, however, forces you to release the new work under the same terms you received it. Consult the license terms of the project for details.

When you want to gain complete copyright of the work, including the right to get rid of those license texts and the full right to release it under any license conditions you want without any strings attached, you need to contact the original author(s) and ask them to transfer the copyright to you. Keep in mind that when it was a collaborative project, you need the permission of all contributors, unless they explicitly transfered their copyright to the project maintainer by signing a contributors agreement with a copyright transfer clause.

Also keep in mind that you will have to give them a reason to transfer the copyright to you. As stated above, the open source license they implicitly gave you should give you all the freedoms you need to continue the project. What they give you with the copyright is the permission to change the license to something they don't want. So some persuasion will be required.

  • Where does the name of the project fit into this? Would forking under a different name require no permission, but using the same name would? Jun 27, 2015 at 15:50
  • 3
    @trichoplax When the name is trademarked, you must fork under a different name (or get them to license the trademark to you). When it is not trademarked, you can keep using the name, but you might want to change it slightly to avoid confusion.
    – Philipp
    Jun 27, 2015 at 15:53
  • Thanks - is that relevant to the question and worth editing into the answer? (comments are transitory) Jun 27, 2015 at 15:54

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