Companies use headers like

// Copyright 2011 The Go Authors.

But countless projects with a single maintainer have

// Copyright 2011 John Smith

even though they have hundreds of contributors, all of whom own their contributions.

Is this ok to only include the owner in the header?

  • 3
    Not a project that require a CLA / other form of copyright assignment? Apr 8, 2019 at 14:33
  • 1
    If you're the author of this project, I would highly discourage adding such headers. Modern version control system have much better ways to attribute authorship than copyright header. If you found this in an existing project though, I would highly recommend against removing it without the consent of the listed party. In any case, such notices are not legally necessary to own copyright of the project/file.
    – Lie Ryan
    Apr 9, 2019 at 8:17
  • It can be legal if you strictly define for which part of software is this copyright notice. For example - specific file or subsystem/library.
    – i486
    Apr 9, 2019 at 9:31
  • 1
    @LieRyan : Note that especially within fields where people are not all software engineers, it's not that unusual for people to download stuff from open source websites, then keep and modify files in a non-VCS environment, keeping a header with a source in every file might be a good practice not to let these people forget where it came from.
    – Mefitico
    Apr 9, 2019 at 11:35
  • 1
    @LieRyan, yes, git has better ways to attribute changes than a line "Copyright so-and-so"; but that doesn't mean it is the legally correct way to do it. The law moves much slower than the technology it is supposed to apply to.
    – vonbrand
    Feb 13, 2020 at 3:31

4 Answers 4


As far as I am aware, all FLOSS licenses that deal with copyright notices only require the preservation of notices that exist. Each author had the opportunity to add their own name to header when they made their contribution. If they chose not to do so, there is no existing notice from that author to preserve. There is never (as far as I know) any requirement to proactively add a notice that an author chose not to include.

Not having a copyright notice for some copyright holder is not inherently legally problematic, either, since copyright notices have virtually no legal function. An overwhelming majority of nations have ratified the Berne Convention, which requires that copyright rights are automatically granted at the time of a work's creation, irrespective of any copyright notice on the work.

If someone removes existing copyright notices by another author (whose copyrighted material is still contained in the work), then that's obviously not allowed by the license.

  • Why is removing a copyright notice "typically illegal in general"? For example if a work is in the public domain, or its copyright has expired, I don't see how removing the copyright notice would be "illegal in general" in that case.
    – Brandin
    Apr 8, 2019 at 5:49
  • 1
    @Brandin You're right that "in general" was too broad. My intent was "illegal independent of whether the license explicitly disallows it or not" and I have edited to clarify.
    – apsillers
    Apr 8, 2019 at 10:15
  • 3
    @Brandin you do have a point, but consider moral rights: the right to be recognized as the author. Copyright notices are one way to do that recognition. Of course the duration of moral rights is extremely jurisdiction-dependent. In some places authorship needs to be asserted in order for these rights to apply. In others, moral rights never expire, even if the economic rights on the work have entered the public domain.
    – amon
    Apr 8, 2019 at 12:34
  • I think the question here is regarding, or may involve, a component of honesty: in particular, by putting such a notice at the beginning of a file when it was not (majorly?) written by the person indicated, even if it may be required by a license (e.g. that requires reproduction of notices), is that a lie, and if so, how does that jive with the requirements from said license? Apr 8, 2019 at 15:51
  • @amon I always interpreted the "right to be recognized as author" to mean that you can state "I wrote/draw/created X". Not that any depiction in any form of X should state explicitly that you are the author.
    – Bakuriu
    Apr 8, 2019 at 21:26

Regardless of whether it's legal (it should be, but ask a lawyer), as a maintainer I find it inappropriate. For software that has a single primary author and many contributors of small patches, an appropriate copyright notice looks like:

Copyright ©2019 [author's name], et. al.

for et alia, literally "and others".

For a work with multiple major authors (and it's not clear to me the point at which this should change), but with no formal organization holding copyright, a more appropriate version might be:

Copyright ©2019 the authors of [project name]

However, you might want to run this by a lawyer, since it's not entirely traditional/conventional.

If you do end up with a formal organization that will hold copyright to most of the work, but don't want to impose FSF-style copyright assignment, an appropriate notice would be:

Copyright ©2019 [The Organization], et. al.


Legal? Who knows? If you work for a place that has an open-source compliance lawyer, ask them.

Still: open source licenses often suggest what to do with existing copyright notices. For example, the MIT license says, emphasis mine.

Copyright year copyright holder

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the "Software"), to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:

The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.

It's clear, under this license, that the copyright notice on the FOSS you used should be included unchanged on the copies you distribute. If you did a substantial amount of work you could add another copyright line.

Other licenses offer similar requirements.

  • 1
    Your statement contradicts the license. The license specifically says that you may make whatever modifications you want with the one exception that you may not modify the license file. So it would permit you to modify one-line copyright notices with author identification inside other files as you wish. Apr 9, 2019 at 3:06

As far as I understand, the copyright holder to the file (there might be several) should add a line "Copyright 2020 John Smith. Licensed under conditions" to it somewhere. If no explicit permissions, nobody has any right on the file's contents. Not read it, not change it, not pass a copy to somebody else. If somebody makes a (substantial) change, add their line in. Nobody else is entitled to delete those lines, FOSS license or not. Sure, can create a veritable mess if conditions don't match...

Some organizations (e.g. the FSF, also most comercial software houses) retain all rights over any changes (FSF asks any contributors to sign them over, if you work at SomeCorp, your work is work for hire and belongs to SomeCorp anyway), and thus can do with the result as they please. Many large projects ask contributors to give a license to the changes and guarantee that the contributor is entitled to contribute the change under the given license, thus the project has some leeway in handling licensing issues. For example, to contribute to Linux (the kernel) you contribute your changes under GPLv2, but you remain owner. Nobody can come in and contribute under e.g. GPLv3+ and force (part of) the kernel to a licensing change or rejection of the patch. The ownership of Linux code is explicitly distributed among the thousands of individual contributors, to change license would require all of them to agree. It would be a nightmare. But only the whole collection has legal standing to sue somebody violating the license, also a mess.

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