Suppose a big project with GPL license has several developers, most of whom working on a few source files. Is it appropriate/possible that the copyright notice in each source file include only the names of those developers who have worked on that single file? In other words: who are the copyright holders of a single source file and when somebody is allowed to add his/her name to the copyright notice?


1 Answer 1


What is the creative work that the developers contributed to? Is every file an independent creative work for the purpose of copyright? Or does a software constituted from multiple files present a single and indivisible creative work?

In general, consensus seems to be that software copyright can be considered in a very fine grained manner, down to individual source code lines. However, the FSF also asserts that a larger software system in its entirety can be a derived work of all its components.

I do not think that those standpoints are contradictory, so that it is very well possible to track copyright holders on a file by file basis. Then, any contributor who makes a nontrivial change to a file holds partial copyright to that file, and would be allowed to add their copyright notice.

In practice, I think this is a fairly bad idea. It makes more sense to track contributors on a per-component basis.

  • Copyright notices do have legal relevance but they are in no way required for someone to be recognized as a copyright holder. Many copyright laws do encode the presumption that a person designated as the work's author is the copyright holder, which suggests

    • that there should be an indication of the contributor's authorship somewhere
    • that copyright notices should not designate some individuals as authors but not others

    This can be resolved both by providing very complete per-file copyright notices, or by providing no per-file copyright notice at all (!).

  • It is difficult to tell whether smaller contributions amount to a copyrightable derived work. A project policy that every change counts will overstate the list of copyright holders. If the project has some policy that decides a cutoff point, that point is almost certainly wrong, and such a policy will attract politics and squabbling.

    • therefore, correct per-file copyright notices are very difficult and require extra effort
  • Not every contribution is a copyrightable contribution. In particular: not every contribution is code. It seems unfair to attribute only copyright holders.

My personal preference is to add a pseudo-notice “© <year> the <project> contributors” to individual files, though that doesn't count as a copyright notice under U.S. law. The full list of contributors can then be listed in a central place, regardless of whether they are copyright holders. Per-file authorship information is more accurately tracked by version control.

  • Thank you. The website discourages such comments but I find it a little impolite not to express gratitude for such a high-quality and detailed answer.
    – apadana
    Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 9:10
  • 2
    @Arham If you feel that way, I recommend you to mark it as an accepted answer as well as vote up the answer.
    – J.A.P
    Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 13:35
  • @J.A.P, I assure you that I'm well familiar with the routines in stackexchange websites. :)
    – apadana
    Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 16:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.