During my PhD at a research institution I developed some software that I made public under the LGPL license (upon advice from the law people at this institution). I then moved to another research institution. The first institution have continued to support the software for the past 3 years, but they are going to run out of funding for it soon and will probably stop the support.

If this happens, I would like to take the software back and continue its development in the context of the work I do at my current research institution. The first problem is, I don't want the software to be under LGPL (my current institution uses other licenses that are less constraining, like MIT or BSD). Second, I don't want the original institution to be able to come and claim anything (like copyright, or money), should the software get a wider audience and/or be used commercially.

What should I ask the original institution? To simply re-license the software under a license that is appropriate for me? Something else?

  • 3
    How many people have contributed to the software in the last 3 years? In general relicensing requires getting all of their permission; otherwise you cannot use their code. In theory if you removed all code from the project except for the parts that you personally wrote, you could relicense it (assuming you actually own the original and did not transfer ownership via some kind of agreement with the institution), but in practice this is probably very hard to achieve. See: How can a project be relicensed?
    – Brandin
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 13:47
  • I'd say 95% of the code is mine. Over the past 3 years the engineer in charge of it didn't do much. I could take the version from 3 years ago, but yes, I did transfer ownership to the institution.
    – user48172
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 14:03
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    Even if you wrote most of the code, it sounds like you either did it as a work-for-hire or explicitly transferred copyright to them. In either case, you wrote it, but they own it. You will need to see what they are willing to do (e.g. relicense, sell your new institution the code base, sell you the code base which you can then relicense, etc.).
    – Brandin
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 14:55
  • Thanks, if they agree to re-license, then there is no problem? I'm pretty positive they would accept, since the software would otherwise die.
    – user48172
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 17:35
  • 1
    If they relicense it, and you agree to use it under the new license (e.g. BSD), then it sounds like it would be fine. But your point "otherwise the software would die" does not sound very convincing to me. After all, if the software is available under an LGPL license, anyone can take it and improve it, as long as they give the improved code back. That's basically the whole point of (L)GPL. Some companies are hesitant to use LGPL or insist that they must own all the code they use in their products. In that case, that company should negotiate terms to get a custom license from the owner.
    – Brandin
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 4:35

1 Answer 1


Relicensing requires the consent of all copyright holders. If your previous institution holds the copyright or exclusive usage rights, you no longer have any usage rights to the software you have written, except as given to you through the LGPL license.

Therefore, you can either ask your previous institution whether they would like to relicense, or you can find a way to live with the rights you received through the LGPL, as if you were an unrelated third party.

This may in fact be entirely sufficient: the LGPL behaves like a MIT-style permissive license when dynamically linked with your code, so dependent code is not considered a derived work. Just like the MIT license, it doesn't forbid commercial use and provides no basis for collecting royalties.

The LGPL does however behave like the GPL with respect to the LGPL-licensed software itself, i.e. you can only publish modified versions under the same license. As this only applies when you publish a version of the LGPL-licensed software, this doesn't restrict how you use the software internally for your own work.

There are some differences between different LGPL versions of which you should be aware. The LGPL v3 is explicitly irrevocable and includes a patent grant. This may be desirable for your use case. The LGPL v2.1 is not so explicit (but still irrevocable in practice) and does not include a patent grant.

  • 2
    If the OP is the only contributor, but his former institution holds the rights, then he could try simply asking to have the rights assigned back to him. In light of the fact that they are going to end support, and that the program is unlikely to produce any revenue (I assume), it's not out of the question that they would agree. Actually, if the institution holds all the rights, then it probably does not matter whether the OP is the sole contributor. Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 21:28

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