It seems a simple enough concept for anyone who’s spent some time hacking on open source code: once you release something as open source, it’s open for good. Sure the developer might decide that future versions of the project close up the source, it’s been known to happen occasionally, but what’s already out there publicly can never be recalled. The Internet doesn’t have a “Delete” button, and once you’ve published your source code and let potentially millions of people download it, there’s no putting the Genie back in the bottle.
But what happens if there are extenuating circumstances? What if the project turns into something you no longer want to be a part of? Perhaps you submitted your code to a project with a specific understanding of how it was to be used, and then the rules changed. Or maybe you’ve been personally banned from a project, and yet the maintainers of said project have no problem letting your sizable code contributions stick around even after you’ve been kicked to the curb?
Due to what some perceive as a forced change in the Linux Code of Conduct, these are the questions being asked by some of the developers of the world’s preeminent open source project. It’s a situation which the open source community has rarely had to deal with, and certainly never on a project of this magnitude.
Is it truly possible to “take back” source code submitted to a project that’s released under a free and open source license such as the GPL? If so, what are the ramifications? What happens if it’s determined that the literally billions of devices running the Linux kernel are doing so in violation of a single developer’s copyright? These questions are of grave importance to the Internet and arguably our way of life. But the answers aren’t as easy to come by as you might think.