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Suppose I was the owner of an open source project. Many people work in this project.. And many people use it.

My question:

Do I have legal obligation to keep the project accessible to the contributors or the users?

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    Please define what you mean by "accessible", and describe what exactly you plan to do (or what you fear that might happen) that causes a change of the status quo.. – Michael Schumacher Jul 2 '15 at 16:34
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    Could you indicate what you mean with "the owner of an open source project"? – Martijn Jul 2 '15 at 16:48
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There is no intrinsic legal notion of “ownership” of a project in the sense I think you mean. A creative work is collectively owned by all the people who made a nontrivial¹ contribution. The fact that one person may have control over the hosting, may be the ultimate arbiter of who gets commit rights, may be considered the charismatic leader, etc. does not make them “the owner” in a legal sense.

Participating in a creative work does not in itself carry legal² obligations³. You have legal obligations only if you entered a contract carrying these obligations.

Participation in an open source project that isn't public domain intrinsically requires entering a contract, namely, the project's license. Most open source licenses are light on pure obligations, they only specify what the contractors are allowed to do. Open source licenses mostly list permissions and restrictions to these permissions, but the restrictions only forbid things that would be forbidden by copyright law in the absence of a license.

It would be atypical for an open source license to carry an obligation to make the project available, except for one thing: some licenses require that if you distribute a derived product, you also distribute the source. For example, the GNU GPL has such provisions, §3 in GPL v2 and §6 in GPL v3. The GNU GPL obligations on source distribution can be summarized by grouping them in two ways:

  • You may distribute the source code alongside the derived product, under broadly similar terms. With this method, if you shut down the method to distribute the derived product, you are free of any further obligation regarding the source code.
  • If you make a distribution that lacks source code, you must fulfill requests to distribute the source code at cost (or cheaper) for the next three years.

The source code distribution offer is an obligation on the distributor, who need not be a copyright holder and thus might not own the project at all. The easiest way not to incur any obligation is to always offer the source code alongside the derived product (offer it for download on the same server, put in in the same CD pack, etc.).

There may be a completely different sense in which you're a project owner, and that's if you get funding. When someone gives you money, ostensibly to work on a project, they generally require you to sign a contract promising some delivery. A funding contract is likely to obligate you to deliver your work (and possibly to coordinate, incorporate and deliver other people's work) at least to the funder. It may also obligate you to distribute the work to the public at large (e.g. if it's a grant to cover distribution costs). There's no standard form for such contracts, so read yours carefully, and get help from a lawyer if you're in doubt.

¹ I'm not going to go into what constitutes nontrivial here as it's irrelevant for this question.
² I'm assuming “typical” jurisdictions, e.g. US or EU.
³ Excluding some very specialized domains which might be subject to restrictions, e.g. knowledge pertaining to nuclear weapons.

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Under open source licenses, you are obligated to distribute the source code when you distribute the software. The exact way how you should do that differs per license.

You don't have an obligation to keep hosting a project.

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    "The" license? Which license? I don't see any license specified in the question, and many open source licenses don't have any requirement to make source or binaries available in any situation. And even for those that seem like they do (like the GPL), depending on what the OP means by "owner", it's very well possible that the license still doesn't actually say that. – hvd Jul 2 '15 at 21:03
  • good point, will edit accordingly – Martijn Jul 2 '15 at 21:28

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