If I include this in the Contributor License Agreement (CLA) for an open source project I'm doing:
(the following is from Apache's individual CLA)

Grant of Copyright License. Subject to the terms and conditions of this Agreement, You hereby grant to the Foundation and to recipients of software distributed by the Foundation a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, no-charge, royalty-free, irrevocable copyright license to reproduce, prepare derivative works of, publicly display, publicly perform, sublicense, and distribute Your Contributions and such derivative works.

(a CLA dictates under what terms someone contributes source code to the project)

Then, can I change the copyright license of my open source code project, to something else? (after other people have contributed.) For example, GPL, MIT, or even proprietary, closed source, commercial? (Current license: AGPL)

I can do that, right? Because the contributors grants me a copyright license with all permissions, including to sublicense it?

Or do I need something like this: (from Ghost's CLA which I think originally is from an old version of jQuery's CLA)

By contributing your code to Ghost you grant the Ghost Foundation a non-exclusive, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicenseable, transferable license under all of Your relevant intellectual property rights (including copyright, patent, and any other rights), to use, copy, prepare derivative works of, distribute and publicly perform and display the Contributions on any licensing terms, including without limitation: (a) open source licenses like the MIT license; and (b) binary, proprietary, or commercial licenses. Except for the licenses granted herein, You reserve all right, title, and interest in and to the Contribution.

Background: I'm developing open source software. It's licensed under the AGPL. But later on I want to change to a more permissive license, like the GPL (or possibly MIT or Apache 2). And I also want the possibility to sell the software to companies under some commercial license, if they aren't okay with the GPL license. — Just above the actual CLA text, I tell everyone about these my thoughts about the future. So everyone knows I'll change to GPL or MIT later on, and maybe want to sell to companies.

1 Answer 1


The right to change the license is one of the intellectual property rights that are commonly referred to as copyrights.
The basic idea with copyrights is that all rights belong to the author of a work and that author can grant licenses to others to exercise a sub-set of the rights.

In the first CLA fragment (from Apache), the right to change the copyright license is not included in the rights you receive, so after you accept a contribution from someone else, you can only change the license with their express permission.
In the second CLA fragment (from Ghost), the right to change the copyright license is explicitly included and you are permitted to change the copyright license without asking further permissions.

As a note of caution, with a CLA that allows you to change the license at will, also to a permissive or closed-source license, you may find that people may not want to contribute to your project.

On the one hand, there is a large cultural divide between the proponents of (strong) copyleft licenses and the proponents of permissive licenses. One of the major reasons for wanting a (strong) copyleft license is the guaranteed freedom it gives to end-users that they can see and modify the code. One of the basic ideas behind strong copyleft licenses, like GPL and AGPL is that the code under such a license can't be used in a product together with closed-source code. Many advocates of strong copyleft licenses are strongly opposed to the idea of closed-source code.
For ideological reasons, such people will not be willing to contribute to your project and they may go as far as giving your project bad reviews because of it.
And in the same vein, proponents of permissive licenses may also not be comfortable to provide their contributions initially under a strong copyleft license.

On the other hand, your desire to change the license at a later date, and even sell the software, gives me the impression that you want to make money off the work that I provide to you without any reward. That can be large off-putting factor for many potential contributors.

  • 2
    I read the Apache CLA rather differently: the contributor issues a completely unrestricted license to the Apache foundation to publish contributions and derivative works of those contributions, and allows sublicensing. Importantly the Apache CLA is unconnected to the Apache 2 License. Here, sublicensing means the ability of the licensee to issue third parties with any license they can issue with the granted rights. That does amount to a right to change the license.
    – amon
    Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 7:52
  • @amon That's how I interpreted the word "sublicense" too, but IANAL. Google's CLA's text is identical to Apache's CLA and I'd be surprised if Google doesn't want to be able to relicense contributions Google gets, under any license.
    – KajMagnus
    Commented Dec 7, 2017 at 1:22
  • 1
    I agree with @amon. The (first) CLA gives the Foundation the right to "sublicense" without constraining the terms of that sublicense. Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 7:40
  • My experience is that contributors very rarely care about the terms and conditions of their contribution unless you actually ask them to sign something (and especially if you ask their employers to sign it). By contrast, potential corporate users care a lot: and many of them won't touch anything that smells of GPL with a bargepole. Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 7:42

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