I'm interested in some of the legal issues around software licensing, but my question could apply to other copyrightable works too. Most free and open source software is copyrighted but distributed under some license that grants others the right to use it. Other authors instead opt to disclaim copyright entirely and dedicate their work to the public domain. There is some debate about whether this is a good thing to do or not, see for example this article from the open source initiative. In that article and others, I've seen a statement made that "Disclaiming copyright is only possible in some countries."

In what countries can you disclaim copyright? In what countries can you not disclaim copyright? For example, this page seems to say that, under German law, copyright cannot be transferred from one person to another except by inheritance. Does that mean the dedicating a copyrighted work to the public domain is a meaningless statement in Germany?

  • I reckon that any country in which you can make a legally binding contract (in the same way as any open source licence is a contract), you can promise not to enforce and/or assert any of the exclusive rights of copyright which you as the copyright owner may own in the software. See under the heading "Licenses" here: opensource.stackexchange.com/questions/297/…. Job done.
    – lellis
    Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 20:37
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    The information you say that site contains is not readily visible - can you be more specific about where you get that information about German copyright law and transferring rights? If it was true it would seem to prevent any technology company from operating in a practical manner in Gernany. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 22:14
  • @GeorgeWhite Woops I didn't realize it was behind a paywall -- there's a wiki article about it. I think regarding your point about tech companies, see the next section in the wiki article about license. Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 22:34
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    thanks - I see that exclusive licensing has most of the features of a copyright transfer, but leaves some rights perpetually with the author. This seems related to Moral rights -- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_rights Commented Oct 30, 2019 at 23:00
  • @lellis "I reckon that any country in which you can make a legally binding contract (in the same way as any open source licence is a contract), you can promise not to enforce and/or assert any of the exclusive rights of copyright" Laws may forbid certain contracts. In the US an author has a right to terminate licenses & transfers after 35 years, contracts not to exercise this right are void. Also, many open-source licenses are not contracts in common-law countries for lack of consideration. General legal principles often have specific exceptions. Commented Jan 14, 2022 at 15:34

2 Answers 2


Assignment and licencing of Copyright is dealt with in s196 of the Copyright Act 1968.

Copyright is personal property and, subject to this section, is transmissible by assignment, by will and by devolution by operation of law.

Whether someone can renounce ownership of personal property under Australian law is not entirely clear. It appears that the answer is probably yes if the owner forms the intention to abandon it. However, that does not make it public domain and the copyright might be able to be claimed by the "finder" of the abandoned property.

There appears to be no provision in the law for "destroying" the personal property that is copyright. Unlike, say, a car, it is not physically possible to destroy copyright.

Notwithstanding, a copyright owner who purports to disclaim copyright has probably granted a permissive, royalty-free, non-revocable, non-revocable, perpetual licence to everyone and this would bind their successors in the copyright which is practically no different from a work that is public domain. Even if this were not the case, the copyright owner would almost certainly be estopped from enforcing copyright against anyone who had taken up their offer of "public domain".

  • Don't know why this was downvoted -- it answers my question. Commented Nov 4, 2019 at 2:00

The Netherlands.

Dutch copyright law identifies a number of economic and moral rights that together form "copyright". Some of these rights can be declined, e.g. the moral right to be identified as the author of the work. This is explicitly stated in the law. By the usual legal interpretation, there is no implied ability to decline the other rights.

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