I started an OSS project with a fellow coding enthusiast in 2014 (that has since pretty much left the project, although as far as I can tell he's still following everything that's going on). Since the beginning, the copyright notice on the software's installer and "about box" reads:

© Copyright 2014-2018 Mathieu Guindon & Christopher McClellan

However I've since transferred ownership of the GitHub repository from my account over to a GitHub organization "Rubberduck VBA".

While my own contributions remain substantial (I'm still #1 contributor), the team has grown, and I feel core contributors have taken the project to new heights and made it achieve things I couldn't have dreamed of achieving on my own.

I'd like to change the copyright notice to read as follows:

Copyright © 2014-2018 Rubberduck VBA

I feel that would better reflect the collaborative nature of the code base, and would make me feel much better about standing on the shoulders of the amazing people that have contributed to the project, some much smarter than me.

The repository currently has over 600 "stars", and according to Open Hub the team is "one of the largest open-source teams in the world, in the top 2% of all project teams on Open Hub".

So I opened an issue on the repository to change the copyright notice, but then one of the contributors raised the question "is Rubberduck VBA an entity that can assert copyright?" ...and I don't know the answer.

  1. Can I do this? Can a GitHub organization be made the copyright owner?
  2. Should I do this? Is it stupid to do so?
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    Is Rubberduck VBA a legal entity? If the copyright on Rubberduck would be violated, would you be able to convince a judge that you can legally represent the organisation Rubberduck VBA? – Bart van Ingen Schenau Jul 19 '18 at 18:56
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    I don't know about Canada, but I know enough about copyright law in the US to know that everything is copyrighted with or without the (c), and that Mat as the owner of the project has full ownership of the copyright. – Hosch250 Jul 19 '18 at 19:21
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    Yes, you own the org. And even if you didn't, any judge would accept you as a valid spokesperson for the org in court. – Hosch250 Jul 19 '18 at 19:24
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    For any future visitors, I’m the other guy who is in the current copyright notice and I do give my permission to change it, however that may affect the answer. – RubberDuck Jul 21 '18 at 12:05
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    @curiousdannii I realize I'm biased, as the guy who answered, but I disagree: while this question would probably be acceptable on Law.SE, the third and fourth paragraphs of my answer are appropriate for this site, but would be certainly out-of-scope for Law.SE. I think the question of how to handle many contributors, who submitted under an implicit inbound=outbound agreement but failed to add their own copyright notices, is a distinctly FLOSS-y problem. A Law.SE perspective is likely to say what is or is not legally possible, but not necessary prioritize a community-appropriate resolution. – apsillers Jul 23 '18 at 19:56

I would not expect that Rubberduck VBA, as an unincorporated organization that lacks legal personhood, is an entity that can own a copyright (though this may vary by jurisdiction). Furthermore, unless you and the other authors performed a transfer of title to Rubberduck VBA, the copyright of each contribution would remain owned by it's original author. Changing the repository to be listed as "owned" by another user account on the GitHub.com website is not a transfer of copyright title.

However, this says nothing about whether you can or should include your proposed copyright header. Copyright notices are no longer required to legally establish copyright ownership; in this context they largely serve as attribution to give credit to the authors of a work. Generally you may not remove another author's copyright notice (unless you remove all the copyrighted work by that author as well), because the license under which the author supplied their contribution required you to preserve copyright notices.

However, from your description, there are no other copyright notices. You would not actually be removing any other notices except your own and Christopher's. Other authors could have added their own notices when the made their contribution(s) but effectively chose to remain anonymous within the copyright notices. Whether relying on such a legal technicality is good governance of your project is another matter, of course. (Openly discussing this in your bug tracker, like you're doing, is a good idea.)

Rubberduck VBA is not an entity that can hold a copyright, but changing your copyright notice to say copyright is held by "Rubberduck VBA Contributors" might be a reasonable thing to do, especially if you list those contributors in a separate, e.g., LICENSE file with the license text and a full list of named copyright notices. You could also just list them standalone in a CONTRIBUTORS file, but my concern there is that a downstream redistributor/reuser might fail to include that file, whereas bundling the list in a file with the license text that requires preservation of that license file and/or subsequent copyright notice(s) increases the odds it will survive downstream modification of the project.

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    I like "Rubberduck VBA Contributors", I think it conveys what I mean it to. – Mathieu Guindon Jul 20 '18 at 4:11
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    This. A GitHub organization is no legal entity, and the copyright is still owned individually by its contributors, no matter where the code is hosted. – Zizouz212 Jul 20 '18 at 22:00

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