For the last few months I spent significant time contributing to an open source project which is licensed with MIT license. I was aware that anyone is allowed to copy, use and change the project's code, including my code, even on private or commercial products, and I was ok with that.

Recently the project main developer and maintainer (who is also the copyright owner of the license) updated me that he is negotiating the selling of the project to a commercial company, and when this happens the company would get the name and all the rights i.e. they will be the bosses from now on. They are also planning to change the licensing of the project, or make it dual-license.

This took me by a surprise.
So the MIT license not only allows anyone to use, distribute and change the code, but also allows the selling of the project, using its name and changing its licensing...
If I knew this in advance, I might not have contributed my code, that would end up as a property of some company I have nothing in common with, instead of being a part of a public project with a permissive license.
It seems to be legal, but still feels unfair for the contributors who spent their time and efforts for the community so that eventually some individual company would enjoy its fruits.

(Well, I know I can keep my code open, or even fork the entire project at present time before re-licensing, but this would be of little value without the name, the community etc. once the "formal" project is re-licensed and continues to evolve. I will not have the resources to maintain such a fork, build a community around it and compete with the "formal" project)

Are there any well known license types that, from the one hand, are very permissive (allow use, distribute and change the code also for commercial purposes), but from the other hand could prevent a commercial company from "taking over" a public open source project, take its name and its rights, and change its license?


If they cannot change the license, they are still allowed to make it dual license. Can this be prevented?


3 Answers 3


They are also planning to change the licensing of the project, or make it dual-license.

Unless you have signed a CLA or assigned the copyright of your contributions in some way, they cannot legally do either of these options. You are the copyright holder of your contributions, and therefore you, and only you, get to say which license or licenses they are distributed under.

However, in the case of the MIT license, this doesn't necessarily have much practical impact on a commercial company. So long as they keep the copyright notice and attribution to you, they can do just about anything they want with your code - that's sort of the point of a permissive license. Sorry to say it, but if you wanted to prevent this sort of thing happening, you should have licensed your code under a strong copyleft license like the GPL rather than a permissive license.

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    That sounds like a restriction against a field of endeavour, which would make it not open source at all. Apr 12, 2019 at 22:38
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    @AmirGonnen, while I understand your sentiment, what is stopping a company from gaining control over a project by just hiring all the lead maintainers of the project? That way, you could even get control in practice while it looks to the outside world as if the community is still in control. Apr 13, 2019 at 5:30
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    @AmirGonnen: You can use trademarks to prevent a hostile takeover of the brand name of the project, but there is very little you can do against a big company buying the brand name from the people that were put in place to protect it. What could happen is that the community loses trust in the original project and rallies around a fork. Apr 13, 2019 at 18:09
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    See e.g. OpenOffice vs LibreOffice, the ongoing MySQL vs MariaDB (yes, there's a theme here). On the other hand, look up gcc vs egcs where the community to some extent abandoned the original project for the commercial one. Apr 13, 2019 at 21:52
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    @PhilipKendall maybe this worth a new question, but there is something in your answer that is not clear to me: you said "Unless you have signed a CLA or assigned the copyright of your contributions in some way, they cannot legally do either of these options", so you say that they cannot change the license without my permission. So - how did it work for FreeRTOS? It used to be GPL and they changed it to MIT. I'm sure they didn't get the permission of each and every contributor for making this change. MIT is less restrictive, but who said a contributor agrees for less restrictive? Apr 15, 2019 at 7:43

You certainly can fork the project and perhaps get developers move over to your fork. I'm sure many of them feel like you do.

This has happened before: Libre Office from Open Office, Maria DB from MySQL, ...


Any copyright owner can licence their code as they see fit. It doesn't matter what license it has been distributed under - Gnu license is no different from any other license in that regard. Just like code under the MIT license can be changed and sold, the same goes for Gnu license and even proprietary and closed code can be opened and distributed under MIT license if the owner so wishes.

For example: If Linus Torvalds decides tomorrow to license Linux under the MIT license, he can do that. All it means is that the people who already have the old version under the Gnu license can keep maintaining and developing the old version under the previous license but the variant he maintains goes forward with the new license. That's all.

The same way if MicroSoft decides to open Windows 10 under the MIT license then there is no one to stop them doing so. Like I said, it's up to the copyright owner/holder and not the license.

Basically from your perspective regards to the code and license you already have, nothing changes. Also the company that bought the project can't stop you distributing it under the previous license nor can they revoke the license you already have. Only real thing that will impact you is the community and you probably have to create new forum or something. Or put it up on GitHub and problem solved.

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    "If Linus Torvalds decides tomorrow to license Linux under the MIT license, he can do that" is patently untrue. Torvalds is not the copyright holder of the entire kernel; copyright remains with each contributor. Relicensing the kernel would require getting the consent of all of them.
    – MadHatter
    Apr 14, 2019 at 21:01
  • @MadHatter Like I said in another post, this dispute haven't been settled in a court. While I understand your point, that doesn't necessarily have to be the case.
    – Smart455
    Apr 14, 2019 at 21:14
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    It's true that a court might choose to override anything, but if you're going to take that approach you might want to stop being so definitive about things elsewhere. The kernel copyright issue is fairly well settled, nonetheless: browse the files in some part of the repo and look at the copyright statements. If that's not enough for you, could you at least produce the tiniest shred of evidence that Torvalds holds the copyright on the entire kernel?
    – MadHatter
    Apr 15, 2019 at 6:56
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    But according to another of your own answers, "the copyright law does not allow you to change the license of work that belongs to someone else". On what basis do you then say "he might not have the copyright to the whole repo [but] it doesn't mean that he wouldn't be able to change the license"?
    – MadHatter
    Apr 15, 2019 at 16:32
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    @Smart455 If the contributions are unlicensed, then the default copyright protection of "all rights reserved" applies to them. That protection means that you are not allowed to build upon that code or even download a copy. So, if it were true that the contributions are unlicensed, then Linus might be able to change the license on the code he wrote, but that still doesn't give him a license to do anything with the contributions, let alone put a license on them. Apr 15, 2019 at 20:31

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