Note, it is not a software licensing question, it is a "how to ask this from my boss" question. The IP part is here irrelevant.

In my current project, I have a relative high freedom, actually the goal is only specified and I am nearly free, how do I reach it. Thus, the specification sounds around so: "Make it ready ASAP".

Now I extended an open source build tool, which is part only in the development, but not of the end product. The reason to do that it was the fastest way to reach the project goal.

I did this work in my paid worktime, thus I think this code is the intellectual property of my employer. Thus, I am not allowed to make simply a github pull request from that.

But, I would like to do it.

Now the problems are the following:

  • If I simply do this, it would be probably a violation of my work contract (unimaginable)
  • If I ask the permission of my boss, it would sound like "I worked for others while you paid for me for that, now give your official consent for this" (dangerous)
  • If I simply leave the code in our company repository, the world wouldn't profit from it. It will remain in the company repo and will be slowly forgotten (waste)

How could I contribute my improvement back to the open source community, while I don't cause dangers for myself?

P.s. the open source software is LGPL, which means we can extend it without contributing it back, only we couldn't sell it without providing the source.

P.s.2. it is a small German company.

P.s.3. having the company name in the contributors list would probably beautify its google search results (of the company).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Jane S
    Jan 18, 2017 at 3:39

4 Answers 4


Dear Boss,

Please confirm GitHub-publishing new feature source code in tool Y, that was used while developing X, however not included as part of it.

Due to legal reasons, this source code belongs to the company, however, if the company decides to publish it under Y's license because of benefits (mentioned below), I am totally OK with doing it.

Y is commonly used by large number of developers, even inside our company. I believe, we should publish updates to GitHub, so that:

  • our experience in the technology area is visible and recognizable
  • the community would support and improve functionality based on this and we get all those for free.

Thank you.

Still, I am not sure if you will still violate contract if Boss confirms this action...

  • I like this one. The only thing to add might be a suggestion that, if desired, a link to the company could be added to the project's website. Under certain circumstances, this will benefit both sides - the company gets some advertising and possibly even "public bonus points" for supporting the community, and the project gets a real-life example of application that it can refer to in order to underline its practical usefulness. To illustrate what I mean, see how SQLite highlights who supports the project, for instance. Jan 24, 2017 at 22:53

You wrote a tool that is used by people in the company, not part of what your company develops. So you did not endanger your company's product by "infecting" it with GPL code.

Then, the GPL does not require you to contribute back changes unless you publish binaries (or, in case of AGPL, make the software with your changes accessible via the network). So this seems perfectly safe too. You used third-party software within what is allowed by the license to ease your work. Unless explicitly forbidden, this should be fine for your superiors.

I doubt your boss will think you "worked for others" - after all, you wrote this tool to improve productivity at the workplace, without breaking any licenses or a requirement to make the changes public!

I would now go to my boss and tell him about the thing you did to increase productivity (or even mention it during a regular meeting if you have such meetings and it's common to mention interesting/relevant things you did there). Does he think it's stupid? Then go for "waste". This seems unlikely though. So let's assume he thinks it's a good idea. Then simply mention that what you did is based on Open Source and the community behind this project may be interested in it. Combine that with the question whether he thinks it'll be OK to contribute the change back to the project under the [whatever] license. He's fine with it? Great!

Now either go ahead or possibly do some CYA by sending him an email mentioning what exactly you did again, where/how you'll contribute it and whether he sees anything you should add. That way you are explicitly asking him for a reply. Once you got that reply, either with a suggestion to add xyz or a go ahead, then do so. And keep this email! That way, if there's any trouble in the future, you can always point out that your supervisor was involved and gave his OK!

Whether to trust an unwritten OK or to get written proof completely depends on the company. Some companies might even have policies on Open Source licenses and/or contributions - in that case I would go ahead (assuming it's within these policies). If the company made Open Source contributions before, it's probably also unlikely that there will be fallout from going ahead.


You need to spin this so that there are clear benefits to the company. I'd try this approach:

"To fix that problem we had, I extended open source tool X and it's working great. I'd like to contribute my changes back to the original version, so we get bug fixes, new features and community support for free. What do you think?"


If your company's software includes third party GPL licensed software because you added it, that may be a huge legal liability to your company. There are many things that your company may want to do with the software (for example selling it to get money to pay your wages) that would be copyright infringement. In addition, in Germany the GPL license may be taken as a contract, depending on the court deciding things.

There is an additional problem: Just because someone says the software is GPL licensed, that doesn't actually mean it is GPL licensed.

Instead of workplace.stackexchange, find a site that is about GPL licensing, tell them exactly what you did, and ask them what the exact legal consequences are. Workplace related, the best path for you may be to remove the GPL licensed code from your company and hope nobody notices; the best path for your company would be to tell your boss what you have happened. Do NOT use any third party software, GPL or not, without your company's permission.

Your suggestion "If I simply do it", that is put the software on github, you will be creating an almighty legal mess. Because you may claim that it is GPL licensed, but your company is the copyright holder of your changes, and without their agreement it is not GPL licensed, no matter what you claim. That means anyone downloading the software will unknowingly be committing copyright infringement. You would also be committing copyright infringement, because you published the software and it is NOT under the GPL license (because you had no right to license it).

@Morning Star: You are considering just putting source code with additions that you wrote and that are owned by your employer onto github and slapping on a GPL license. That code would not be GPL licensed. Others can assume it is GPL licensed, but they would be wrong.

If you use third party software without knowledge of your employer, and without their legal department having checked, and you insist to continue doing this, I would frankly consider you a loose cannon that should be removed.

  • 1
    I think if the publicly available github source tree of a software includes a big GPL text file in its root directory, I can assume that it is GPL. Thus, the question is mainly not about license/IP things, the question is about how could I contribute my improvement back while I don't cause any trouble.
    – Gray Sheep
    Jan 15, 2017 at 13:44
  • Furthermore, the improvement happened on a development tool (more exactly, on a maven plugin), and it won't be part of the product. It is used only to fasten its development.
    – Gray Sheep
    Jan 15, 2017 at 13:51
  • Furthermore, as a company using many Java softwares and tools, which is one of the most popular software environments, I find your arguments against open source in general simply surrealistic. Already the Eclipse IDE is opensource, the jdk is open source, at el.
    – Gray Sheep
    Jan 15, 2017 at 14:01
  • 2
    There is an additional problem: Just because someone says the software is GPL licensed, that doesn't actually mean it is GPL licensed.. ... and if I buy a car, I'm not sure if the current owner actually owns it and is allowed to sell it; I'm not sure the car manufacturer paid taxes when buying steel from Arcelor; I'm not sure if the people in Australias iron mines have good working conditions, etc.etc. ... so, sue me. Seriously, even with "new" stuff like software, politicans/judges understand that there is something like reasonable good faith. Car buyers won't be arrested for raw iron taxes
    – deviantfan
    Jan 18, 2017 at 6:27

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