5

As is discussed in various places, German law requires an "imprint"/"Impressum" (a page with some contact information, such as a physical address and an e-mail address, on the person responsible for the site) for virtually every1 website.

In a recent question, it was asked whether this also applies to sites hosted on Github Pages. That question can be answered in a pretty straightforward way (sites hosted on Github Pages are basically no different from any other website, as the author has full and sole control over the appearance of the page.

This question refers to the default appearance of projects on Github, though. Authors have no influence on the general appearance of these projects, as Github displays them in their default layout. The introductory page of a project displays the repository content (the files stored for the project) and is arguably somewhat customizeable in that the content of a file called readme.md from the repository will be displayed below the files list, if it exists.

Now, "common sense" (sorry, could not resist) would tell me that Github owns and controls this page and is thus the first point of contact for any "official" activity. However, it seems that German courts are increasingly ruling that placing, or at least linking to such an "imprint" is also required on various social network profile sites such as Facebook or Google+2. On the other hand, the requirement for an "imprint" on business social networks such as Xing and LinkedIn seems to be disputed even for businesses presenting themselves there3.

Therefore, my question is: Is at least the requirement of an "imprint" on social media profiles limited to actually commercial enterprises, or are all German owners of Github projects who do not link to an "imprint" in their readme.md (if even that is sufficient, given that this link may not be intuitively discoverable) vulnerable to receiving costly cease-and-desist letters?

Related bonus "question": Exemplary links to Github projects by German owners that are "doing it right" are appreciated.


1: There are some exceptions for "purely personal" sites, but any information I can find in German implies that nothing that might be of interest to any stranger on the web can possibly "purely personal" in the interpretation of German courts.

2: General information in English, some more information in German: 1, 2, 3, 4

3: Two articles in German: 1, 2

4

Impressum Requirement

Wow, based on your citations, you've done a lot of research on this topic. I'm just going to add one more reference, which is from the same site as your first German citation and has incredibly detailed and judicially referenced information on almost everything related to the Impressum. All my non-GitHub links are to sections of that page.

Based on your research, I'm going to take it for granted that you understand that according to the Telemediengesetz (TMG), an Impressum is required on a web page if it is "business-like" (geschäftsmäßig), or if it helps, I prefer to word it as "potentially commercial." I would have to argue that open source projects have to be seen as inherently "business-like" for the purposes of the TMG for two reasons:

  1. Some other legal person may have similar software as part of their business and might have the need to serve legal notifications to the owner of a GitHub project (TMG § 8 gives competitors the right to sue). Think potential copyright violations here.
  2. It is possible to build a more traditional commercial business around open source, for example what Canonical is doing around Ubuntu.

Additionally, the common legal advice is to even include an Impressum on a personal blog, though I'm not aware of any court case having occurred at that level yet. In my opinion, a GitHub account can be seen as more "business-like" than a personal blog, and would follow that advice out of caution.

I'll note that the XING situation you bring up is complicated. It centers over whether the content of XING pages is "business-like" according to the TMG. It may well turn out that some pages will need an Impressum and others won't.

As for placing it in the project's readme.md, that might work but I have two concerns:

  1. The courts have essentially stated that the text of the link must imply that the required information under TMG § 5 is located there. For example, the words Impressum and Kontakt work, but the word Information does not. To me, "readme" is not sufficient, but this concern might be negated by the fact GitHub by default renders the readme.md directly on the project home page.
  2. While it has been ruled that the Impressum does not necessarily have to be directly on the home page (for GitHub, that would be the company's/users profile page), it must still be readily available in an intuitive location. I don't know if putting it in a project page satisfies the legal requirement. If it was sufficient, it's also likely that each project would have to have an Impressum so that it can't be missed.

Examples

The dominant pattern that I could find1 on GitHub is an off-site link to the Impressum contained in the profile page's byline right underneath the title. Examples: https://github.com/sedadigital, https://github.com/comsysto, https://github.com/znes, https://github.com/eSagu, https://github.com/TIBHannover. I'm almost certain this meets or exceeds the legal requirements.

Example screenshot: example screenshot of Impressum link on GitHub page

Additionally, I found a few that had a repository specifically for an Impressum. Examples: https://github.com/hestja, https://github.com/johsteffens. Since these repositories are clearly visible on the user's main page (the first because there weren't enough repositories to make them span multiple pages, and the second because it was specifically pinned to the main page), I would argue these also meet the legal requirement for being readily available.

While I didn't find any examples of it, another possibility would be to combine the above two approaches, having a link in the byline that links to an Impressum repository or some other page within GitHub. This would be useful if you didn't otherwise have an Impressum hosted elsewhere.

There were also scattered examples of people placing an Impressum on a project wiki page or on an impressum.md file at the top level. However, none of the users I looked at were consistent in doing this across all their projects. Also as previously mentioned, it's questionable whether not having it on the main user profile page meets the legal requirement. The Wiki page in particular I don't think meets the requirement that it can easily be found.


  1. Found using the following Google search: site:github.com impressum -impressum.php -impressum.html -impressum.jsp -impressum-manager -github.io -issue. Exclusions meant to filter out a lot of false positives, mostly projects for websites that had their Impressum in code format meant for deploy and not for display on GitHub itself.
  • Thank you for your extensive answer. Some remarks/questions: "Wow, based on your citations, you've done a lot of research on this topic." - the pages I linked to are just a tiny fraction of what I have read about this complicated requirement. "To me, 'readme' is not sufficient, but this concern might be negated by the fact GitHub by default renders the readme.md directly on the project home page." - oh, absolutely. I did not expect users to open the readme.md file from the file listing when looking for an "imprint" (a file called impressum.md would probably be a better bet in that ... – O. R. Mapper May 17 '18 at 19:31
  • ... regard), but I was referring specifically to Github always displaying the content of that file on the project summary page. (I was not aware there was any other way to customize that page with own content.) "for GitHub, that would be the company's/users profile page" - that is an interesting (and, to me, surprising) interpretation. I had always taken for granted that "the homepage" is the project page, as that's what visitors are primarily interested in and what contains the main content (the user's profile page being rather some meta-information on the project than the other way ... – O. R. Mapper May 17 '18 at 19:32
  • ... round). Personally, I wouldn't find the "imprint" if it were located only on the user's page, but I understand I do not think like a law professional ;) In any case, this makes me wonder what the rule is on other software distribution sites, where projects do not "belong" to a user or organization. For instance, on SourceForge, projects are linked to any number of users, so visitors would apparently have several "imprints" to choose from. Likewise, NuGet doesn't seem to allow for any customization of the user profile page. Anyway, will consider accepting this answer in a few days. – O. R. Mapper May 17 '18 at 19:36
  • @O.R.Mapper With respect to profile page being the "home page", there's 2 reasons I said that (note I haven't sourced this, it's my own thoughts): (1) From a technical perspective, the breadcrumbs on the project page, and the URL both show the profile page at a higher level than the project page. (2) From a legal perspective, you need to find the legal person to serve legal notifications to, the profile page can be seen as a representation of this person. – DPenner1 May 18 '18 at 4:00

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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