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Common misconceptions in licensing

by Donald Robertson Contributions Published on Feb 23, 2015 05:09 PM

Part of our work in the Licensing and Compliance Lab involves answering questions from the community about licensing.

While the most common misunderstanding revolves around whether you can charge for copies of freely licensed works (hint: you can!), there are other aspects of licensing that frequently cause confusion. We have a very robust FAQ that covers a wide variety of questions related to licensing, but I just wanted to highlight a few common mistakes.1

Source required even for verbatim copies

One of the most common misconceptions that leads to compliance failures is the idea that one can distribute a verbatim copy of a GPLed work without providing source. Sometimes people will fail to provide source at all, while others will think that pointing users upstream to the original author satisfies the source requirement. While there are some circumstances where users can pass-on a written offer from an upstream distributor, all versions of the GPL require that the distributor themselves provide access to source.

No requirement to 'publish' source code

Good community members will always want to share code widely, but a part of software freedom is choosing whether to distribute the software at all. Copyleft licenses like the GPL ensure that when someone chooses to distribute software, their users receive the same freedoms in the software, for which they'll need access to source code in order to fully enjoy. But when someone chooses to not distribute the software, or to only distribute it to particular persons, community members sometimes cry foul. In particular, people are often distressed that they can only get a copy of the source code for a particular GPLed work by paying for a copy of the binary. While we can encourage distributors to make the source available to all, the license only requires that they provide the source to those who receive the binary. If a distributor chooses to only provide source to their direct customers, users who receive the source code with the binary should share that source code with others.

The LGPL is not not a permissive license

The LGPL is a copyleft license. In fact, it is actually the GPL with additional permissions. These additional permissions allow users to link to the work without adhering to all the conditions of the GPL, but the LGPL still places some conditions on users, in order to ensure that they can still use, modify, and distribute the library. Even though a work that links to an LGPLed library need not be licensed under the LGPL, it still needs to be under terms that maintain the user's rights to the library. At minimum, the user is going to need a copy of the license, so that they know what those rights are. There are even situations where a distributor will need to provide source code for the library, even if they do not need to provide the same for their own work.

1gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq

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