Related to but distinct from What can I assume if a publicly published project has no license?


I'm working on piece of web-based software under the AGPL, which I may monetize in the future on a pay-for-content (rather than the software) basis.

One requirement of my software is to interface with midi pianos. The web midi interface is relatively new technology (only available in Chrome so far), and there don't seem to be any exist any published libraries that simplify and abstract over the raw browser APIs.

There does exist a website with accompanying github repository which interfaces with midi pianos, contains very user-friendly configuration and discovery of midi devices, etc. The repository has no license file. The site's About page includes the following:

A work in progress

This app is far from complete and is still being developed. If you have ideas or feedback please get in touch. If you'd like to contribute to this app, you can find the source code on GitHub: (link)

The invitation for contributions makes it unlikely that the author intended to publish to GH in the "all rights reserved" sense, since that would prevent others from modifying a fork and creating a pull request.

The repository includes an old, unacknowledged License file missing issue, and I've emailed the author referencing the issue and asking for clarification but received no response. The author has made recent contributions to GH so is unlikely to be dead.


Given the above, I know that I'm not able to use code from this repository in my own project. That said, I'm a wimpy baby who hates working directly with browser APIs and I dread undertaking this work on my own from scratch.

How much risk do I assume if I have a good look at the relevant code in this repo and then write my own from scratch two weeks later?

  • 1
    I think clean room design is what you want to look at.
    – sambler
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 4:16
  • If it is published publicly to GitHub, you already have permission to 'use' (but not necessarily redistribute) the code. That is because everyone who publishes publicly on GitHub already agrees to give public access to the code. In particular, you are allowed to use the 'fork' feature on any code you see in GitHub. Of course, once you download a copy and plan to redistribute (modified or verbatim versions of it, or works based on it), you need a license. Just reading code is not redistributing; the same way that reading a Harry Potter novel is not redistribution.
    – Brandin
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 13:36
  • 4
    The above comment is dangerous, because it puts you at greater risk for potential legal action. While you have the right to use, if you end up writing the same code in your project, even if you didn't copy it, that would most likely open you up to legal challenges. If you have help on your project, they could potentially read the code and then design a spec or answer questions with regards to the code you write, but the best way to be safe is to avoid ever reading the code yourself.
    – xzilla
    Commented Aug 5, 2019 at 21:57
  • @xzilla "if you end up writing the same code in your project" - This risk exists whether you read it or not. It is available on GitHub; that is the important part in a legal dispute (that you have access to it). You can swear up and down that you never availed yourself of it from GitHub, but it is still there publicly available (you have access).
    – Brandin
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 13:28

1 Answer 1


If there is no explicit license, you have to assume that there is no license, you are in essence not even allowed to copy it to your machine and use it. Sure, nobody is going to sue you for doing so; but if you build multi-million dollar enterprise on it, it will happen.

Be nice. Ask the author for permission. Tell them to select a license for their code and publish it with the code. Point them at David Wheeler's "Make Your Open Source Software GPL-Compatible. Or Else." (by publishing the code, I assume they want it to be freely shared). A useful stop would also be Choose a license.

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