The overview documents some basic usage on how to use this tool. It is highly recommended to read the overview first, and you might not even need to read this chapter. This chapter covers details that might not be immediately obvious when using the tool. This chapter does not cover everything, assuming that the user is helped enough by reuse --help and reuse <subcommand> --help.

Implementation details#

This section covers implementation details that are true for the entire tool.

When searching for copyright and licensing tags inside of files, the tool does not strictly limit itself to the header comment as prescribed by the specification. It searches the first 4 kibibytes of the file. This makes sure that the tool can parse any type of plain-text file, even if the comment style is not recognised.

If a file is found to have an unparsable tag, that file is not parsed at all. This is a bug.

The tool does not verify the correctness of copyright notices. If it finds any line containing ‘©’, ‘Copyright’, or ‘SPDX-FileCopyrightText:’, then the tag and everything following it is considered a valid copyright notice, even if the copyright notice is not compliant with the specification.

When running the tool, the root of the project is automatically found if the working directory is inside a VCS repository. Otherwise, it treats the working directory as the root of the project. You can override the root of the project with the --root optional argument.

Git submodules are automatically ignored unless --include-submodules is passed as optional argument.

Meson subprojects are automatically ignored if exists in the project root. --include-meson-subprojects overrides this behaviour.

Symbolic links and files that are zero-sized are automatically ignored.


annotate makes it possible to semi-automatically add copyright and licensing information into the header of a file. This is useful especially in scenarios where you want to add a copyright holder or license to a lot of files without having to manually edit the header of each file.


You should be cautious with using annotate in automated processes. While nothing is stopping you from using it in your release script, you should make sure that the information it adds is actually reflective of reality. This is best verified manually.

The basic usage is reuse annotate --copyright="Jane Doe" --license=MIT This will add the following header to the file (assuming that the current year is 2019):

# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2019 Jane Doe
# SPDX-License-Identifier: MIT

You can use as many --copyright and --license arguments, so long as there is at least one such argument.

The REUSE header is placed at the very top of the file. If a different REUSE header already existed—at the top or elsewhere—its tags are copied, and the header is replaced in-place.

With the argument --copyright-style it is possible to change the default SPDX-FileCopyrightText to one of the following style:

spdx:           SPDX-FileCopyrightText: <year> <statement>
spdx-c:         SPDX-FileCopyrightText: (C) <year> <statement>
spdx-symbol:    SPDX-FileCopyrightText: © <year> <statement>
string:         Copyright <year> <statement>
string-c:       Copyright (C) <year> <statement>
string-symbol:  Copyright © <year> <statement>
symbol:         © <year> <statement>

Shebangs are always preserved at the top of the file. If you also want to preserve the existing header, use the argument --no-replace.

Merging Statements#

When the tool parses copyright headers, reuse can be configured to automatically merge copyright lines based on the statement element. This effectively transforms multiple lines with a single year into a single line with a range.

Starting with the following header,

# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2016 Jane Doe
# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2018 John Doe
# SPDX-License-Identifier: GPL-2.0

The standard tool options would produce the following

$ reuse annotate --year 2018 --license GPL-2.0 --copyright="Jane Doe"
# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2016 Jane Doe
# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2018 John Doe
# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2018 Jane Doe
# SPDX-License-Identifier: GPL-2.0

Running the same command with the –merge-copyrights option will instead produce the following

# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2016 - 2018 Jane Doe
# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2018 John Doe
# SPDX-License-Identifier: GPL-2.0

Comment styles#

The tool normally tries to auto-detect the comment style to use from the file extension of a file, and use that comment style. If the tool is unable to detect the comment style, or if it detects the wrong style, you can override the style using --style. The list of styles can be found in reuse.comment module.

If your comment style is not supported or a file extension is not correctly detected, please open an issue.

Normally, the tool uses a single-line comment style when it is available (e.g., // is used instead of /* */ for C comment styles). If no single-line comment style is available, a multi-line style is used. You can force a certain comment style using –single-line or –multi-line.


When the tool adds a header to a file, it normally first lists all copyright statements alphabetically, adds a single empty line, and then lists all SPDX License Expressions alphabetically. That is all that the header contains. It is possible to change this behaviour, and use a custom type of header that contains extra text. This is done through Jinja2 templates.

The default template is:

{% for copyright_line in copyright_lines %}
{{ copyright_line }}
{% endfor %}
{% for contributor_line in contributor_lines %}
SPDX-FileContributor: {{ contributor_line }}
{% endfor %}

{% for expression in spdx_expressions %}
SPDX-License-Identifier: {{ expression }}
{% endfor %}

Templates are automatically commented by the tool, depending on the detected or specified comment style.

You can create your own Jinja2 templates and place them in .reuse/templates/. If you create the template mytemplate.jinja2, you can use it with reuse annotate --copyright="Jane Doe" --template=mytemplate

Inside of the template, you have access to the following variables:

  • copyright_lines — a list of copyright notices (string).

  • contributor_lines — a list of contributors (string).

  • spdx_expressions — a list of SPDX License Expressions (string).

In the future, more variables will be added.

In some cases, you might want to do custom comment formatting. In those cases, you can pre-format your header as a comment. When doing so, suffix your template with .commented.jinja2.

An example of a custom template with manual commenting is:

{% for copyright_line in copyright_lines %}
 * {{ copyright_line }}
{% endfor %}
{% if copyright_lines and spdx_expressions %}
{% endif %}
{% for expression in spdx_expressions %}
 * SPDX-License-Identifier: {{ expression }}
{% endfor %}
{% if "GPL-3.0-or-later" in spdx_expressions %}
 * This program is free software: you can redistribute it and/or modify it under
 * the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software
 * Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or (at your option) any later
 * version.
 * This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT
 * ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS
 * FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.
 * You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License along with
 * this program. If not, see <>.
{% endif %}


lint is the main component of the tool. Summarily, it verifies whether the project is compliant with the REUSE Specification. Its main goal is to find all files that do not have copyright and licensing information in their headers, but it also checks a few other things.

The STDOUT output of reuse lint is valid Markdown. Occasionally some logging will be printed to STDERR, which is not valid Markdown.

You may prevent STDOUT output by using the –quiet option. This can be useful if you are only interested in the exit code.

This is some example output of reuse lint:


'bad-license' found in:
* LICENSES/bad-license.txt


The following licenses are not used:
* bad-license


The following files have no copyright and licensing information:
* no-information.txt


* Bad licenses: bad-license
* Deprecated licenses:
* Licenses without file extension:
* Missing licenses:
* Unused licenses: bad-license
* Used licenses: Apache-2.0, CC-BY-SA-4.0, CC0-1.0, GPL-3.0-or-later
* Read errors: 0
* Files with copyright information: 57 / 58
* Files with license information: 57 / 58

Unfortunately, your project is not compliant with version 3.0 of the REUSE Specification :-(


These are the criteria that the linter checks against:

Bad licenses#

Licenses that are found in LICENSES/ that are not found in the SPDX License List or do not start with LicenseRef- are bad licenses.

Deprecated licenses#

If a license has an SPDX License Identifier that has been deprecated by SPDX, the license will show up here.

Licenses without file extension#

These are licenses whose file names are a valid SPDX License Identifier, but which do not have a file extension.

Missing licenses#

If a license is referred to in a comment header, but the license is not found in the LICENSES/ directory, then that license is missing.

Unused licenses#

Conversely, if a license is found in the LICENSES/ directory but is not referred to in any comment header, then that license is unused.

Read errors#

Not technically a criterion, but files that cannot be read by the operating system are read errors, and need to be fixed.

Ignoring parts of a file#

You can easily ignore parts of a file that will always cause problems for reuse lint. Suppose you have the following bash script:

#!/usr/bin/env bash
# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2021 John Doe
# SPDX-License-Identifier: CC0-1.0

echo "SPDX-FileCopyrightText: $(date +'%Y') Jane Doe" > file.txt
echo "SPDX-License-Identifier: MIT" > file.txt

exit 0

This will lead to the following error message despite the file having the correct licensing info in the header:

$ reuse lint
reuse._util - ERROR - Could not parse 'MIT" > file.txt'
reuse.project - ERROR - '' holds an SPDX expression that cannot be parsed, skipping the file

The following files have no copyright and licensing information:

To avoid this error message, you can simply amend the file as follows:

#!/usr/bin/env bash
# SPDX-FileCopyrightText: 2021 John Doe
# SPDX-License-Identifier: CC0-1.0

# REUSE-IgnoreStart
echo "SPDX-FileCopyrightText: $(date +'%Y') Jane Doe" > file.txt
echo "SPDX-License-Identifier: MIT" > file.txt
# REUSE-IgnoreEnd

exit 0

Now, reuse lint will not report any problems with this file anymore.