Suppose I made a patch to Linux kernel. I am supposed to confirm that I own the code. (Forgive me if "own" is not the correct term.) As I understand, this is a specific case of a general concept called a "contributor license agreement", and I am to sign it rather often if I wish to contribute to high-profile open source projects.

However, there may happen a case that I write the code not in my spare time but while working for hire. Or otherwise not own the rights I am attempting to transfer to the maintainers of the project I am contributing to. That may get discovered quite long a time after the contribution is made, so the code may be in use by many people out there.

  1. What legal actions may the actual owner of the code attempt, if we suppose that they hate everyone else in the world and want to inflict as much harm as they could, and possibly also obtain money?

  2. How much of the suffering outlined above will fall on:

    • Myself?
    • The maintainers of the project I wrongfully contributed to?
    • The users of the project?

P.S. I would especially enjoy an answer that highlights the difference between me pushing the code I do not own while signing a license agreement, and pushing the same code while not being required to sign anything − i.e. how does the requiring of a contributor to sign an agreement change the situation, for all the sides involved.

1 Answer 1


What happened is that you created a legal mess.

You are obviously on the hook for copyright infringement. The maintainers of the project will scramble to replace your code with newly written code. They will likely ask your company which code they are complaining about - that puts your company into the problematic situation that they shouldn't identify code that isn't theirs, that it will be hard to sue for infringing code when they didn't give the project maintainers a chance to fix it, and that everything they identify will be replaced.

Since it is your actions that caused the trouble, anyone suffering damages from your actions can sue you.

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