Consider the following scenario

  • Project A is originally licensed under a permissive license
  • By the time it reaches version 6, it has built up a strong user base, many of those users producing closed commercial products.
  • The original copyright holders decide that version 7 should be licensed under a copyleft license.
  • This decision means that the commercial companies will not use version 7 for fear of being forced to disclose some IP they want to keep private (regardless of any realities).

At this point, someone forks version 6, retaining the original license. They continue to develop it into a competing project which picks up all the old commercial customers (and possibly their funding and technical contributors and other resources).

All this is allowed by the original license: but it clearly subverts the intent of the original copyright holders expressed in their decision to relicense.

Is this a natural consequence/risk of initially choosing a permissive license? Is this a problem, or a benefit?

  • 1
    Do your users distribute derived works of project A, or are they just users of the software and do not distribute derived works? In the latter case, you would have to choose a license that forces them to publish changes they have done privately to the copies of project A they got from you - this could be the Reciprocal Public License, for example. The RPL is not approved by the FSF, for example. Commented Jul 1, 2015 at 21:02

2 Answers 2


That's pretty basic: an open source license is irrevocable. Code that was released once under the terms of an open source license can always be used under these terms if someone mirrored it so it is still available. If you change your mind it means that you cannot retract your earlier decision. You only can enforce a new license on new contributions, but if people were content with the old version, they still can use it.

So can the ability to fork override the copyright's owners desire? Sure, if the copyright owner changes his opinion (as people do).

Is this a natural consequence/risk of initially choosing a permissive license? it is the consequence of each open source license, be it permissive or copyleft. The problem pertains also with a copyleft-license. If you're the only copyright owner, you could relicense (for instance to proprietary if you wish), but your old code could still get redistributed and forked.

Is this a problem, or a benefit? This depends on who you ask. The reason why you can't take the rights away is trust of the the users, contributors and forkers. You can't say afterwards its all illegal. This is obviously an upside - but not for the copyright owner. In the end licensing under an open source license is always a decision to give up rights.


Permit me to first go for kicking in the open door.

The ability to fork can override the copyright owner's desires if and only if it's not the owners desire that the project is forked.

Permissive licenses were specifically invented for this. It is possible that not every larger project will play out as this scenario, but it is certainly the intention of the license that it does.

By releasing under a permissive license, you explicitly give permission to do so. With your choice for a permissive over a copyleft license, it is your implicit hope that this will happen. Allowing for this is the reason for choosing a permissive license over a copyleft license.

By creating a project, your intention surely is to create something of value. The type of "buyers remorse" your expressing - discontent with the license you gave in perpetuity to everyone, and not being able to revoke it - seems to be most common when the intention to create value is fulfilled, and it is valuable enough to fork and close.

It seems akin to saying you're willing to give something away for free to anyone who wants it - until people want it bad enough to pay for it, then you don't want to give it away for free anymore.

So is this a problem, or a benefit? That depends on your goals and reason to release in the first place.

  • Often people who would kick themselves for giving away for free something that became popular ignore the fact that many free things that become popular do so because they were free. Some short films like those made by the Three Stooges were widely broadcast in the 1970s and 1980s because independent television stations needed to fill up airtime, and they could broadcast such shorts without having to pay royalties. Had the copyrights not been allowed to lapse, the stations would have broadcast something else and the Three Stooges would not have become popular among those decades' audience.
    – supercat
    Commented Sep 15, 2023 at 21:54

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