GPL Violations

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Software Licenses   >   Articles   >   GPL Violations


GPL Violations

The GPL and LGPL places various, fairly liberal, conditions on redistributing the work, and on distributing derivative works. For example, if you redistribute a GPL licensed work, you must distribute to others under the GPL. Likewise if you create and distribute a derivative work of a GPL licensed work, you must it also under the GPL.

The question arises, what happens when these conditions are violated?

Before we start with address that, one first needs to consider why anybody would violate the GPL's conditions in the first place? Here are some reasons why this situation can arise:
  • It may simply be ignorance or mistake. For example, some people incorrectly simple assume that things are public domain simply because they are available online.

  • It may be the result of a short-cut by a contractor or employee. For example, if an organization pays to have some software developed for its own use, a contractor or employee might make use of some GPL code that they found online, either to save time, or because they did not realise the consequences of using it.

  • It may be a deliberate attempt to control a customer's use of a GPLed work. For example, the supplier may wish to place restrictions that prevent customers from passing on the software to others (even though this violates the GPL).

  • It may be a result of a change in circumstances. For example, a developer could create a derivative work of a GPL work, be happy complying with the GPL (perhaps he is only using the software internally within his own organization, so the GPL doesn't affect him), but later when circumstances change, he finds it uncomfortable to comply.
In any case, there is an easy way for an any organization to comply with the requirements of the GPL: Only use GPL licensed software in situations where the organization can and will comply with the conditions of the GPL.

So what happens when an organization doesn't comply with the GPL?

Obviously it depends, but typically when their non-compliance is discovered there may be a howl of outrage on sites such as Slashdot, bad publicity for the infringer, and the possibility that copyright-holders in the GPL licensed software may pursue the infringement using the law.
  • The GPL is typically the only license that the infringer has to the software in question. By being non-compliant, they do not have a valid license (note: the GPL v3 contains detailed text about termination), and therefore are infringing the copyright-holder's copyright. The copyright-holder might sue for damages and/or for an injunction to stop further infringement. In some circumstances such an injunction might effectively shut down the infringer's business.

  • Note: Copyright-holders in the original GPL code, have legal standing to enforce their legal rights to their code. In most cases, other people (such as members of the public) do not have a legal basis to get involved in cases involving GPL non-compliance.

  • If the infringer has created a derivative work, it does not automatically become GPLed. This is because a derivative work contains a mixture of elements from the original GPL software, plus new elements created by the infringer. Since, the infringer has a copyright on his new elements, he can use that to stop people using his work in a way that he does not approve of, and is not required to GPL his work. Though not required to GPL their work, some infringers may choose to do so, as part of a lawsuit settlement.
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