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Suppose that someone (S) has supervised a group of students for a school project to produce software. This software is licensed under the MIT License and the copyright notice caries the name of the supervisor (S) and no other name..

Can S use this code in S's personal project and discard the MIT License?

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    What is the basis for the license being in your name? Are you in fact the only party who holds copyright in the software? Did the students assign their copyright to you in writing? In what country did the project take place?
    – phoog
    Apr 9 at 21:32
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    This asks what the law and a particular license permits. It is not a request for specific legal advice, and should not be closed. If anyone wants I will reword it to be more explicitly generic, but it oesn';t ask "what should I do?" only "what may i do?" Apr 10 at 2:46
  • See this meta discussion on whether this should be closed. Apr 10 at 2:52
  • And as the answers given there indicate, by clear consensus, this question is off-topic in its current form. Whether it could be a basic license question is irrelevant, when it is a request for specific advice of a legal nature.
    – Nij
    Apr 10 at 10:52
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    @NiJ, very well I have made the edit that the majority seems to regard as needef to bring this on-topic. Apr 10 at 13:38
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The MIT license is non-exclusive. If S is the sole copyright holder, S can issue any other non-exclusive license in parallel, and can also stop offering the software under the MIT license. However, open source licenses such the MIT license are generally understood to be irrevocable, so S cannot prevent other people from using the software who already received it under the MIT license terms.

But: only if S is the sole copyright holder.

There is no particular reason to believe that S would be the sole copyright holder. One does not gain a copyright ownership just by supervising other people, although an employer might gain copyright ownership over works created by employees (e.g. the US “work for hire” doctrine). That the copyright notices only mention S's name is an indication that S might be a copyright holder, but that's neither sufficient nor necessary for showing that S holds sole or joint copyright in the software. This leaves three relevant scenarios:

  • S might be the sole copyright holder, in which case, yes, S can effectively discard the MIT license. This might be the case e.g. if there was some other copyright assignment, outside of the MIT license. What copyright transfers or assignments are valid depends on the local laws, e.g. some jurisdiction do not recognize copyright as transferable and at most allow the assignment of economic aspects of copyright.

  • S might not be the sole copyright holder, but have additional permissions to the work. For example, there might have been extra licensing agreements, outside of the MIT license. Or S might have special rights for a work of joint authorship, if and only if the jurisdiction recognizes such additional rights.

  • S might not be the sole copyright holder and not have any agreements outside of the MIT license. Then S has no additional rights, and is bound by the terms of the MIT license. This doesn't have to be a problem: S can still pretty much do whatever S wants with the code, as long as S fulfils the license terms. These are pretty simple: just keep a copy of the copyright+license notice with any copies of the software the students created.

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  • The GitHub repo goes as such: "MIT License Copyright (c) 2020 <My Name>" Would this not make me the sole copyright owner?
    – ursulet
    Apr 9 at 22:06
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    @ursulet Because the copyright is not created by the copyright notice. The students held copyright from the moment they implemented their parts of the software. To claim that the student's aren't copyright holders, you'd have to put forth an argument like that they transferred/assigned their copyright to you, or that their contribution was not copyrightable in the first place (unlikely). That copyright notices are so popular in the software world is mostly an historical accident because the US did require such notices before 1978.
    – amon
    Apr 9 at 22:20
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    Such notices are completely normal in the open source world, but typically only list the original or major authors/contributors. This shouldn't be misunderstood to mean that they would be the only copyright holders. In general, every contributor is the copyright holder for their contributions, even if it's not spelled out explicitly. So from your notice, it doesn't follow that you'd be the sole copyright holder.
    – amon
    Apr 9 at 22:22
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    @ursulet No, that would not. That would simply be a false statement with regard to any elements you didn't author or whose authors didn't assign their copyrights to you. (As generally understood, it simply means that you hold copyright to some elements in the final work but not necessarily to all of them.) Apr 10 at 1:37
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If S is the owner: yes

But S isn't the owner

The software the question describes is probably a joint work - the copyright belongs to all of the authors collectively.

If the work of individual authors (or sub-groups of them) are identifiable then it’s a collective work and the author(s) of each part can give independent permission for that part. However, software is not generally this type of work because they are too entangled; anthologies of poems fit this better.

It’s fair to say that by contributing to an MIT licensed repo that each author agreed to release their work under that license but nothing further can be read into it. However, one of the potential problems with the MIT license is it is not explicitly irrevocable - if one of the authors withdraws permission, users of the license would have to argue that it was implicitly irrevocable - it's by no means certain that such an argument would succeed.

The fact that S owns the repo and S's name is in the copyright notice (which isn’t required in any case) gives S no more rights than any other author. S can use it under the MIT license (until it’s revoked), if it’s fair use/dealing, or if S gets permission from all the other authors.

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Can I use this code in my personal project and discard the MIT License?

Sure. You can use the code however you want. US law permits ordinary use without significant restrictions. If you buy a book, you don't need a license to read it.

The problem is, if you wish to duplicate or distribute elements that you didn't author (or do anything else that US law requires you to have a license to do), the only thing granting you the right to do that is the MIT License. There's nothing you can do to change that other than to get a different license from the authors of those elements. You will have to comply with the MIT License with respect to those copyrightable elements in the project that you did not author.

The only thing that license requires of you is that you do this: "The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software."

Now you don't have to do that if you don't want to. But if you don't, you don't get the license. And then you would have no legal right to distribute, modify, or copy (other than as necessary for your ordinary use) the protectable elements in the project to which you do not personally hold copyright.

Note that this answer is based on US law. There are other countries where this reasoning does not apply.

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