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The source code for my personal website is publicly visible on GitHub and hosted live with GitHub Pages. Back when I was creating this site, I didn't really understand the implications of copyright law too well and gave it an MIT license under my name. I also have a clear copyright notice in the footer of my website.

Yesterday, I discovered that someone else forked my repository on GitHub, changed the repository name to be under their name, and has been editing my site content to try to pass it off as their own, even changing the footer to claim it's under their copyright and leaving many of my blog posts published on their version of the site.

I filed a DMCA takedown claim with GitHub, but I'm wondering whether I am within my right and what steps I should take to protect myself in this particular case and future ones. So my question:

  1. Has the user done anything illegal if they've kept my original MIT license?
  2. What license should I use to protect myself in the future?
  • Taking a look at your examples, is there a MIT license on your hosted projects, videos, etc? As opposed to the website itself. – sharur May 15 at 14:20
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    Then honestly you shouldn't be using the MIT license, you should be using something like CC-BY-SA... – Ron Beyer May 15 at 14:59
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    They can't remove your name from the copyright notice. They can add their own. – Ben Voigt May 15 at 16:01
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    I'm not exactly sure of the significance of that. When they edited your site to use as their own, they made a derivative work and they do indeed own a copyright on the portions that are new. If they included your copyright notice somewhere on the site (e.g. in a LICENSE file), that may be enough to comply with the terms of the license, even if they didn't mention your copyright in every instance. I am not sure one way or the other - but I don't think I'd be confident that it's cut-and-dried. – Nate Eldredge May 15 at 16:36
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    Why did you license it as MIT if you didn't want to allow someone to fork it, change the name, and to reuse it? That's exactly what the MIT license allows. Did you read the MIT license? The terms are pretty simple. – Brandin May 16 at 8:42
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The text of the MIT licence is as follows (with the disclaimer elided as not relevant):

Copyright (c) {year} {copyright holders}

Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the "Software"), to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to the following conditions:

The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.

THE SOFTWARE IS PROVIDED "AS IS" [...]

The second paragraph clearly says that any copies or "substantial portions" shall carry the copyright notice.

[...] changing the footer to claim it's under their copyright [...]

By removing your name from the copyright and substituting their own they have violated the license and hence your copyright.

Furthermore, as an author you have a moral right to have authorship attributed to you. Exact recognition of this right under law depends on where you are, but something as blatant as this is probably a violation regardless.

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  • Good point about substantial portions of the software carrying the copyright notice. I also did not know about moral rights. I would hope that my blog content would at least be protected since it's my own literary/artistic work. – AleksandrH May 16 at 14:29
  • No, removing the copyright from the footer has NOT violated the license - the copyright notice that the license refers to is that in the license notification itself. This answer makes a leap which is wrong. – Moo May 16 at 21:45
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    By accepting this answer, its obvious the OP just wants to hear what they want to hear - they want to be able to do something about their mistaken use of a permissive license, and this answer suggests they have grounds to. The other answers are better. – Moo May 16 at 21:47
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IANAL, just a programmer with an interest in legal rules.

Due to the very permissive nature of the MIT license, no, it does not appear that anything illegal has been done. Specifically, the section

to deal in the Software without restriction, including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software (emphasis mine)

grants everyone the right to modify your code and share those modifications, provided one includes the license. Since this person has included your license (including your copyright notice), they have followed the conditions of the license and are able to share your stuff. Legally. Ethically, I still think its ****.

This might be a good starting point in selecting a license (note the Modification column). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_free_and_open-source_software_licenses

The CC-BY-SA license family, as mentioned by Ron Beyer in comments is on this list, for example.

TL;DR: You unfortunately granted a more permissive license than what you wanted/needed to. This was a BadThing(TM), analogous to giving too broad of access rights to a method or class. Determine your desired permissions, then select a license that matches what you'd like to grant.

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    @AleksandrH: From a legal perspective, by choosing that license, you explicitly gave everybody permission to do exactly that, so now you can't really complain when somebody actually does it... – Nate Eldredge May 15 at 15:50
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    You can't revoke the license. You gave permission to use that material, whether you meant to or not, and you can't take it back now. You can post a new version with a different license, but it won't affect people's rights to use the previous version. It seems like it'd be wise to get proper legal advice (i.e. from a lawyer, not from the Internet) before doing anything else, since you're at risk of digging yourself in deeper. – Nate Eldredge May 15 at 16:01
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    @CharlesE.Grant: There is a copyright notice on the website, and one in the project. The one on the website has been changed, but that does not appear a MIT license from what I can tell. The copyright notice in the MIT license on the project has not been altered, or at least wasn't when I looked at it earlier. I need to edit my answer to be more clear. – sharur May 15 at 16:43
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    @AleksandrH He can modify the copyright notice, you gave him permission to modify it. His copyright notice is true and correct, he does hold copyright to some of the protectable expression in that work and he can put it there for the same reason you could put yours there. In the US, the law does not protect attribution, only commercial exploitation. – David Schwartz May 15 at 19:07
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    @DavidSchwartz including the original copyright notice is a condition of the MIT license. Because the original copyright notice was not included, the copy is not licensed and therefore infringes AleksandrH's copyright in the original. – phoog May 16 at 18:01
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The thing that they did wrong is to claim copyright for their modified site. Whatever the license is, you have the copyright for everything you have written. If the only changes they made were changing your name for theirs, that is not something that creates copyright at all, so in that case you would still be the sole copyright holder. And if they removed the MIT license or removed your name from the license, then their use isn’t licensed.

Unfortunately for you these are easily fixed.

If your goal was to permit potential employers to see it: I put things into a private location and send employers a link with permission to download the code for evaluation. My current employer did that. No need to give the world free access.

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The MIT license gives them a royalty free license to copy and distribute your copyrighted code, so long as they comply with the terms of the license (e.g. Including the license in their own release)

So literally copy pasting your code to make a website, and then find/replacing your name/details with their name/details is fine.

What would not be allowed is if they infringed on a trademark of yours. But I don't see that occurring here. Ill have to see their source code to be sure

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  • My logo is a trademark that I made by hand. It appeared on his version of the site. – AleksandrH May 16 at 11:19
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    "find/replacing your name/details with their name/details is fine": it's not fine to replace the copyright notice. By doing that, they have violated the terms of the license and are therefore infringing the copyright in the original work. – phoog May 16 at 17:56
  • I was referring to the code not the license. – Shazamo Morebucks May 16 at 20:17
  • Did you register the trademark? Did you exclude it from the license? If you can't say yes to both questions there, you haven't got a legal claim against that either. @AleksandrH – Nij May 16 at 20:44
  • I believe The MIT license doesn't include trademarks, only copyright. Otherwise people would be able to use the microsoft logo since vscode is released under MIT License, etc. See google.github.io/opencasebook/trademarks/… – Shazamo Morebucks May 16 at 23:59
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It's not your website, it's theirs.

They built it from your code.

Yes, the code is yours, but you granted permission for anybody to freely do that, with minimal conditions. They only have to include the same license and acknowledge the original copyright(s) in their own license.

You allowed this when you licensed your work. You may change or remove the license on any future copies of the work that you publish, but you cannot change or remove the license on this copy or any copies that stem from it (which is likely to be all of them, unless you maintained a totally disconnected separate version and don't cross code between them).

Your DMCA takedown can be challenged, and a challenge is likely to be successful. Going further would require a lawyer, though they will probably say the same thing as this - you made a mistake, next time, choose your license with more care.

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    "and acknowledge the original copyright(s) in their own license": but apparently they have not done this. – phoog May 16 at 17:57
  • The copyright statement in the footer is not the license. The license must maintain the correct statement, but the website as displayed does not need to. – Nij May 16 at 20:40

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