Edit: bear in mind that I'm not asking for which license, I'm asking whether it's fair or not.

I want to use the treepedia_dl_public library as a core part of a new website. I checked the repository and noticed that the developers hadn't chosen a license, even though it has been already 2 years since the last time they made a commit.


For the last 2 weeks, I've tried to contact the developers and they didn't answer.

Is it legal to fork an unlicensed project for non-commercial purposes?


Yes, you can fork it - but you can’t use it

GitHub explain what’s a public deposit with no licence means here.

If you find software that doesn’t have a license, that generally means you have no permission from the creators of the software to use, modify, or share the software. Although a code host such as GitHub may allow you to view and fork the code, this does not imply that you are permitted to use, modify, or share the software for any purpose.

Your options:

  • Ask the maintainers nicely to add a license. Unless the software includes strong indications to the contrary, lack of a license is probably an oversight. If the software is hosted on a site like GitHub, open an issue requesting a license and include a link to this site. If you’re bold and it’s fairly obvious what license is most appropriate, open a pull request to add a license – see “suggest this license” in the sidebar of the page for each license on this site (e.g., MIT).
  • Don’t use the software. Find or create an alternative that is under an open source license.
  • Negotiate a private license. Bring your lawyer.

Without a license you fall back on basic copyright - and the copyright owner has not granted any rights to you to distribute their code or derivatives of their code. Github also does not grant you any rights to do so.

So, yes you can fork the repository, but you cannot distribute it or any derivative code you base on it even for non-commercial use - the fork you make should be private, so as to eliminate any accidental infringement.

  • And why the downvote mere seconds after I posted the answer? – Moo Jul 13 '20 at 0:08
  • "Yes, you can fork the repository" - this is false, as it doesn't matter whether a copyright infringement is public or private, it's still an infringement. – Nij Jul 13 '20 at 0:09
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    @Nij you can fork it, because that does not involve you distributing to a third party - you can use it yourself without any issues, and the TOS between Github and the original repo owner allow GH to offer the standard functionality of the site, including forking and downloading of public repositories, so GH is within their rights to allow you to do either of those things - what you cant do however, is distribute onwards. – Moo Jul 13 '20 at 0:11
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    @Nij even the FSF and GNU recognise internal distribution and use without distributing source code as non-infringing of the GPL, because internal distribution and use does not breach copyright so no additional license is needed - gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.en.html#InternalDistribution - its exactly the same in this situation, GH has its own terms agreed with the original code owner and distributes to you under that agreement. You do not inherit the right from GH, and there is no license in the code, so you cannot distribute onward in any form. – Moo Jul 13 '20 at 0:22

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