Frequently Asked Questions
This page lists common questions and their answers when dealing with licensing and copyright, and with the adoption of REUSE specifically. Please note that nothing here is legal advice.
I am short on time. Can you give me the quickest possible summary?
We want to improve the way that people license their software projects. We propose three steps to achieve this:
1. Choose and provide licenses
Choose a Free Software license
for your project. Find the SPDX identifier of your license in the SPDX
License List. Download the license text for your
license from the
repository and put it in the
2. Add copyright and licensing information to each file
Then, for all files, edit the header to contain the following:
# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: [year] [copyright holder] <[email address]> # # SPDX-License-Identifier: [identifier]
3. Confirm REUSE compliance
Use the REUSE tool to automate some of these steps, and to check whether you did everything correctly.
I’m used to doing things differently; can’t I just keep doing what I have always been doing?
Some people, when they first encounter REUSE, run into a couple of things that
are very different from what they are used to. They miss the long legal blurbs
at the tops of files, miss the
LICENSE file in the root of the
repository, think that
.license files clutter the directory, or find it very
strange that even insignificant non-code files get licensing headers. The
different-ness of REUSE can seem peculiar in that way.
One of REUSE’s main goals is to be as compatible to existing best practices as possible. It explicitly breaks with some old traditions, however. We believe that REUSE is better for it. By breaking new ground, REUSE is simpler, more comprehensive, and more unambiguous than it would have been if we tried to maintain compatibility with traditions of old.
Nothing prevents you from adding long legal blurbs to your headers or putting a
COPYING file in the root of your directory anyway though. These things can
be done to your liking. Some other aspects of REUSE are unavoidable, however.
REUSE maintains that every single file should contain licensing information,
so that even the tiniest of files get a header, are accompanied by a
.license file, or marked in a bulk. These things are simply
inherent to the goal of REUSE, and we hope that these eccentricities will soon
become commonplace, such that they would no longer seem so peculiar anymore.
Why can’t I just use the metadata fields in pictures, SVG, text documents etc.?
Several file formats support the storage of metadata information within the file itself, and some even contain fields for copyright and license. However, we do not support these in REUSE for practical reasons:
For humans and machines alike it’s not always trivial to spot this information. REUSE intents to make it simple to find licensing and copyright information.
Some tools redact metadata fields, for example to make files smaller or remove potentially sensible personal information. This could also wipe your or someone else’s copyright information, and detecting this mistake is hard.
With some file types, there are competing and unstandardised methods to store metadata.
This question is also related to why we cannot use version control to record copyright.
What is SPDX?
SPDX stands for Software Package Data Exchange. It is a project by the Linux Foundation and the rock upon which REUSE is built. SPDX defines a standardized way to share copyright and licensing information between projects and people. Most importantly for REUSE, SPDX maintains the SPDX License List, which defines standardized identifiers for a lot of licenses.
How do I install and use the REUSE tool?
The REUSE tool is a handy companion that can verify your compliance with REUSE and automate a lot of adjacent tasks. You can find the full documentation for the tool at https://reuse.readthedocs.io/. But the short of it is:
$ pip3 install --user fsfe-reuse $ export PATH=~/.local/bin:$PATH $ reuse --help
How do I exclude a file from REUSE compliance testing?
If the file is a build artifact and you use Git, simply make sure that the file
is covered by your
Otherwise, you cannot exclude files from REUSE compliance testing. It would go entirely against the purpose of REUSE: making sure that every file has a copyright and license tag.
There is one exception: License files are automatically excluded from compliance testing.
If you have an entire directory that you want to “exclude” from REUSE compliance testing, you can use a DEP5 file.
How do I exclude certain lines from REUSE compliance testing?
In order to make the tool ignore a specific section containing strings that may
falsely be detected as copyright or license statements, you can wrap it within
the two comments
Please note that this must not be used to ignore valid copyright and licensing information by yourself or a third party. The ignore blocks must only be used for marking blocks that may trigger false-positive detections and errors.
An example for a file that contains commands or documentation that confuse the REUSE helper tool:
# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2021 Jane Doe # # SPDX-License-Identifier: GPL-3.0-or-later echo "SPDX-FileCopyrightText: $(date +'%Y') John Doe" > file.txt echo "SPDX-License-Identifier: MIT" >> file.txt
The tool would complain that it cannot parse the license in the last line and it would falsely understand the second-last line as an additional copyright holder:
reuse._util - ERROR - Could not parse 'MIT" > file.txt' reuse.project - ERROR - 'foobar.sh' holds an SPDX expression that cannot be parsed, skipping the file
This is how the section that causes these errors can be ignored:
# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2021 Jane Doe # # SPDX-License-Identifier: GPL-3.0-or-later # REUSE-IgnoreStart echo "SPDX-FileCopyrightText: $(date +'%Y') John Doe" > file.txt echo "SPDX-License-Identifier: MIT" >> file.txt # REUSE-IgnoreEnd
Do you support a version control system other than Git?
What is copyright?
Copyright is a legal construct that grants someone exclusive rights over a creative work. The most important exclusive right is in the name: The right to produce copies. Only the copyright holder is allowed to give new copies of their work to people.
Usually the author is the copyright holder, but often copyright is transferred to the author’s employer. In most places, you do not need to do anything to gain copyright. As soon as you make a creative work, you (or your employer) instantly gain copyright over it.
Creative Commons provides a better and lengthier answer in their Frequently Asked Questions.
Is there a standard format for declaring copyright?
Generally, we recommend that you use
SPDX-FileCopyrightText: [year] [copyright holder] <[contact address]>. You may choose to drop items except the copyright holder,
which must always be included. We recommend that you include all items, however.
Do I use SPDX-FileCopyrightText, Copyright, or ©?
The specification lists the following copyright notices as valid:
SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2019 Jane Doe <email@example.com> SPDX-FileCopyrightText: © 2019 John Doe <firstname.lastname@example.org> © Example Corporation <https://corp.example.com> Copyright 2016, 2018-2019 Joe Anybody Copyright (c) Alice
Out of those, the first two are highly recommended. The others exist primarily to be compatible with existing conventions.
Which years do I include in the copyright statement?
Generally, there are four options for you to choose:
The year of initial publication.
The year of the latest publication.
All years of publications, either as range (e.g., 2017-2019) or as separate entries (e.g., 2017, 2018, 2019).
Do not include any year.
Which option you choose is ultimately up to you.
Which files are copyrightable?
All files that are original works of authorship are copyrightable. In essence, if someone sat down typing their own original thoughts on a keyboard, then that person holds copyright over the output. Common examples are source code, documentation, audio, and video.
There are some edge cases, however. For instance, the program
print("Hello, REUSE!") probably does not meet the threshold of originality. Similarly, data
files and configuration files may not meet that threshold either.
What to do with uncopyrightable files?
There are two things that you can do with such a file to make sure that its copyright and licensing is recorded. The first option is to simply use your regular copyright and license header for this file. There is nothing that stops you from claiming copyright over your own works. However, a court would still likely find such files uncopyrightable.
The alternative is to waive your copyright by using the CC0-1.0 license.
It is important to note that you can only do this for your own works. If the file was authored by someone else, you must declare their copyright and license in the header.
What is a copyright holder, and what is an author?
In these resources, we maintain a distinction between the copyright holder and the author. The author (also known as creator) is the person who sat down and created a work. Think of the author as a programmer, writer, or artist.
The copyright holder is the person who has the exclusive rights over that work. Often the author and the copyright holder are the same. However, if the author is being paid by their employer to create a work, the employer is often the copyright holder.
Keep in mind that in some jurisdictions, the word “author” is often used as a synonym for “copyright holder”. In other jurisdictions, authors maintain some rights over their work even if they are not the copyright holder.
Why can’t I just use version control to record copyright?
In a previous question, we distinguished between copyright holders and authors, which are not always the same. Version control typically only records authorship, which makes it unsuitable for the task of recording copyright.
Another obstacle is that version control history may contain errors, and fixing such an error would require rewriting the history, causing all contributors to have to re-download the new trunk.
A further issue with version control is that the
blame command that is
typically (mis)used to find authorship line-by-line shows only the author of the
last commit in that line, even if it was just something as trivial as fixing a
How do I deal with a file that has been edited by many people?
Some files are edited by many people and would have an extremely long list of copyright holders in the header. This may be aesthetically unpleasing, but is not incorrect.
If you would rather not deal with having so many copyright notices, some projects such as Chromium circumvent this problem by using “Copyright (c) 2013 The Chromium Authors” as their copyright tag. You may consider doing this, but then you should keep a list of copyright holders and authors in a separate file in your project.
I changed a single line of code. Should I add an SPDX-FileCopyrightText tag with my name?
The core question here is: At what point should I consider myself a copyright holder over a file? This is up to your discretion. It might help to be consistent and add the tag to every file you touch, but it is perhaps more valuable to reach a consensus about this within your project.
What is a license?
One problem with copyright as it pertains to software is that it makes software unshareable by default. A license changes that. A license defines the terms under which the copyright holder allows the recipient of the license to use the software.
Which license should I choose?
Always choose a Free Software license, i.e., a license that gives the recipient the freedom to use, study, share, and improve the software. Aside from that, the license you choose is up to you. If you are contributing to an existing project, you should release your changes under the same license as the project. Otherwise, the Free Software Foundation, choosealicense.com, and joinup.eu have some good recommendations. Note that these resources each emphasise a different value, and come with their own biases.
Above all, if you value freedom, you should choose a license that makes your software Free Software.
Do I need to include both GPL-3.0-or-later and GPL-3.0-only in my repository?
Members of the GPL family are listed separately in the SPDX License List as -only and -or-later, even though the license texts are identical. If you have code under only one of these licenses, we recommend that you only include that one license.
If you have code under both an -only license and an -or-later license, we recommend that you include both licenses separately.
What are license exceptions and what do I do with them?
License exceptions are additions or alterations to a license that often work to permit a certain use of the code that wouldn’t be allowed under the original license. It is often used by compilers, where a portion of compiler code may end up in the resulting binary. The exception may waive rights over portions of code that end up in binaries.
Exceptions are treated almost identically to licenses. In order to combine a
license with an exception, you mark a file with the following tag:
SPDX-License-Identifier: GPL-3.0-or-later WITH GCC-exception-3.1.
Where else do I put my license information?
Marking all individual files with
SPDX-License-Identifier tags goes a long way
towards unambiguously communicating the license information of your project, but
it helps to communicate the license information in natural language as well. In
the README of your project, feel free to provide a summary of the licensing
information, or simply redirect the reader to your
Additionally, many package hosting sites expect that you declare the licensing information of your package. For instance, the pyproject.toml file of the REUSE tool declares all the licenses that it uses in the format expected by the Python packaging infrastructure.
Can I bulk-license whole directories?
If you have a directory containing many files, it may not be easy or practical
to edit every file to contain a header. While doing this would be ideal, there
is an alternative. By creating the file
.reuse/dep5 in the root of your
project, you can bulk-license a directory. Example:
Format: https://www.debian.org/doc/packaging-manuals/copyright-format/1.0/ Upstream-Name: my-project Upstream-Contact: Jane Doe <email@example.com> Source: https://git.example.com/jane/my-project Files: resources/img/* Copyright: 2017 Jane Doe <firstname.lastname@example.org> License: CC-BY-4.0 Files: resources/vid/* Copyright: 2017 Jane Doe <email@example.com> 2017 John Doe <firstname.lastname@example.org> License: CC0-1.0
You can read more about this file format by Debian here.
Can I license only a part of a file as being under a different license?
The short answer is that yes, you can, but no, there is no standard way for
REUSE to recognize this. If you have a small segment of a file that is licensed
differently, you should list that license under a separate
SPDX-License-Identifier tag in the header.
You can use your own comments to specify which segment is separately licensed. For instance: “The class Foo is copied from project Bar and licensed under MIT. All changes are licensed under GPL-3.0-or-later.”
A possible way to circumvent the problem is to extract the segment from the file, and to keep it in its own file.
How do I properly declare multi-licensing?
You should always include all licenses in the
The correct SPDX license expression that applies to the file depends on the
intent. If all the code within is licensed under multiple licenses, and the
licensee can choose under which license they consume the work, use
SPDX-License-Identifier: MPL-1.1 OR GPL-2.0-or-later OR LGPL-2.1-or-later, as
parts of Firefox do.
If all the code within the file is licensed under multiple licenses, and the
user must comply with all licenses simultaneously, use
SPDX-License-Identifier: LGPL-2.0-or-later AND AML, as can be found in Simple
DirectMedia Layer (SDL).
If all the code within the file is licensed under either one license or another
(for instance, all code is under GPL-2.0-only, but one function is under MIT),
use separate tags
SPDX-License-Identifier: GPL-2.0-only and
You can read more about SPDX expressions on the SPDX wiki.
How to deal with license texts which include copyright statements, like MIT/BSD?
Some license texts, such as MIT or the BSD family of licenses, can be modified to contain custom copyright notices.
If you are releasing code under such a license, we recommend that you add the
license text to the project without any modifications whatsoever. A good way of
obtaining the unmodified license text is using the REUSE helper tool (e.g.,
reuse download MIT). Instead of inserting your copyright notice into the
license text itself, you add copyright statements to your project’s files
following the normal REUSE best practices.
When you reuse code from multiple sources that use an MIT/BSD license, you quickly run into a problem. Both the MIT license and the BSD family of licenses include a clause that requires the redistributor (that’s you) to reproduce the copyright notice and the license text. For instance, Project A and Project B might both use an MIT license, but the actual license files will differ because they have different copyright notices embedded within them. If you want to reuse code from both of these projects, you might not be sure where to put your copies of those projects’ license files.
We recommend two options:
The most pragmatic solution is to put the unmodified license text (i.e., the license text template without any copyright notices) in your
LICENSES/folder. You then embed the copyright notices of the upstream project into the corresponding source code files you reused, as usual.
The more thorough and labour-intensive solution is to treat any of these license texts with modified copyright notices as a custom license using LicenseRef. However, if you reuse code from many third parties under these licenses, you may end up with a lot of these custom licenses.
I only have a single license file. Should I still create a LICENSES directory?
Yes. This may seem extraneous, but it prevents future confusion when differently licensed code is adopted. By keeping all licenses in a single directory, it is easy for a user of your program to find all the licenses they need to comply with in the blink of an eye.
However, you can keep your
COPYING file if you want. See this
Should I put comment headers in my license files?
You should not edit license files. Please see this question.
How do I use a license that is not on the SPDX License List?
If you have a custom or modified license that does not appear in the SPDX
License List, place your license in the file
LICENSES/LicenseRef-MyLicense.txt. By naming your license as such, tools that
speak SPDX will still be able to recognise your license.
In this example, the header in files covered by this custom license may look like the following:
# SPDX-License-Identifier: LicenseRef-MyLicense # SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2017 Jane Doe <email@example.com>
This may also be necessary when dealing with multiple different variants of customisable license text files like MIT or BSD.
Please note: It is strongly advised to use established and approved licenses.
How do I use a custom exception?
It is not possible to create a custom exception. Instead, you may create a custom license that embeds the exception.
Should I edit my license files?
You should never edit license files. When you use an existing license, you should always copy it verbatim.
Some licenses, such as MIT and the BSD family of licenses, have a line that says “Copyright (c) [year] [copyright holder]”. Please see this question about how to deal with those licenses.
There are many reasons for why you should not alter license texts, but if you do alter the texts, you should use a different SPDX identifier for this license. See the previous question.
How do I copy someone else’s work?
If someone else has made their work available for you to use and copy, you can
incorporate their work into your project. When you put the work in one of the
files in your project, you should add an
SPDX-FileCopyrightText tag for the copyright
holder(s) and an
SPDX-License-Identifier tag for the license(s) under which
the work was made available.
If the work was licensed differently from your project, you should verify whether the licenses are compatible, and add the new licenses to your project.
Can I copy a work that has no copyright notice or license?
Before you proceed, always first make sure that you can find the copyright and licensing information elsewhere. Some projects only include this information in the root directory or in their README file.
If you can find no copyright notice, then that is no problem. You can add the copyright notice yourself.
If the work has no license, then that means that you do not have the right to copy it. If you believe that this is a mistake and the author clearly meant for you to be able to copy this work, you should contact the author and ask them to license their work. Feel free to refer them to https://reuse.software.
Can I edit copyright notices and license disclaimers?
If you find out that some information is incorrect, you are free to adjust it. Otherwise, it is usually a good idea to leave copyright notices and license disclaimers intact. But there is no one-size-fits-all answer here.
You can, but you probably should not. Many minifiers have an option that allows you to retain the header comment. If this option is present, you should use it, especially if you use a license that mandates that you include a license disclaimer.
I want a software bill of materials
Install the reuse tool and run
reuse spdx -o reuse.spdx in the project root
to create an SPDX