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On a project I noticed that it has a LICENSE file, apparently put in place as template when the project was initialized by Github. The file contains the standard GPLv2 template but no copyright notice. None of the source files include a copyright header. There is no copyright notice anywhere to be found. Neither any reference to its contributors. With all sorts of licenses I'm use to seeing at least a statement like this in the LICENSE file header:

Copyright (c) 2019 contibutors. All rights reserved.

Furthermore, the GPLv2 text does not refer to "files in this repository", "directory" or "folder". Only article 0 of the GPLv2 clearly states:

0. This License applies to any program or other work which contains a notice placed by the copyright holder saying it may be distributed under the terms of this General Public License.

This would lead to my conclusion that the GPLv2 license is not applied to anything in the project.

I've seen many questions on the SE network, where developers are asking if they should include a copyright header. Usually they are advised to do so. However my question is the reverse: If I'm to copy or link this project, which lacks any copyright claim, into a non-GPL project, would that be copyright infringement?


Please note: I have no evil intentions. This question is hypothetical and depending on the outcome of this question, I will probably notify the author of the library to rectify the copyright if needed. I've already decided on re-writing the library from the ground up, to better suit my needs

  • Why not just do it, it's not like you'll be found out? – SmallChess Feb 3 at 23:37
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    @SmallChess, that's not the point here. I'm just curious how the rules are applied here. I'm a strong supporter of FOSS and I highly respect other people's work. I'm a bit shocked receiving such a suggestion from a OS.SE user. – Tim Feb 3 at 23:53
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This is a bit of a grey area. In the most formal and literal sense, all the project has is a text document that happens to include terms for some license. There is no express statement that the copyright holders license the software under those terms. If no license was granted, then all rights are reserved.

However, the inclusion of a top-level file called LICENSE strongly implies that the author did intend to license their software under those terms.

The lack of a copyright notice is not relevant here: copyright is automatic. That's a central part of the Berne Convention on copyright, though the US only joined it as late as 1989. A good part of open source predates that, leading to a culture of always including copyright notices. For your reference, the Netherlands joined Berne in 1912.

Consequences:

  • The software is copyrighted. You cannot copy it unless you have a license.
  • The author clearly intended to license their software under the terms given in the LICENSE document.
  • If I were to rely on that license, I would file an issue asking to include an explicit license, e.g. in the README file.
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    Thanks for another insightful answer. This is the second time you are referring to the Netherlands on this site, and I was unaware this is mentioned in my profile. I've actually migrated to Romania since then. I should update my profile ;). Your suggestion made me find out RO implemented Berne in 1927, so the same applies. Perhaps this answer can be improved by including a link to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Tim Feb 4 at 0:01
  • @Tim sorry, didn't want to stalk, just provide info for the relevant jurisdiction :) At this point it is easier to list the countries who didn't sign Berne – it really is the basis of international copyright. As of now, Iran is the most notable holdout. – amon Feb 4 at 0:07

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