Open source licenses e.g. GPL, MIT etc always has a clause about how they should be treated when "Distributing" the code that they are used in.

If I use an open source library in one of my web applications, and "deploy" my application to web server (on internal network or on a public cloud e.g. azure, aws) and then the end users uses my web application using their browsers over the internet or intranet (weather they pay for this service to me or not), am I "distributing" ? do I now have to be complaint with the "distribution" clause?

For example if the "distribution" clause says I need to include the license if I am distributing the application. So now that I have hosted my application on the public internet, do I have to host all the open source package licenses (obtained from npm, nuget etc) along with my hosted application?

My understanding with "distribution" was that "distribution" mean when I am distributing the binaries of my software. And this distribution does not mean distributing as in copying to my own hosting environment for deployment. I see distribution would mean me selling my application binaries. That would be when I sell (sell or for free) my application's source code to some one else, at that time I need to include the open source licenses along with the my application source code.

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    I believe this site should have it covered many times, here for example.
    – max630
    Jul 24, 2020 at 19:02

1 Answer 1


Your understanding about distribution being conveying the source or binaries to others is accurate in general. Licenses like the Affero GPL were created to close this "loophole." However, it's considered good etiquette to make an acknowledgement of the software you include, and to upstream or otherwise publish the changes you make to open source software, even if you are not legally required to do so.

  • Totally agree about the acknowledgement and upstream contribution point. I just wanted to understand form legal perspective. these days modern web apps have 100s of npm frontend packages and backend nuget packages. its obviously not possible to list out all of them on your website. but what are the legal requirements in terms of for example including the license at the time of distribution ? Jul 24, 2020 at 14:16
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    Why is it not possible to list all of them on an acknowledgement page? Every decent app on your phone manages that, thus it should be piece of cake for a website on a server Jul 25, 2020 at 0:01
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    @planetmaker: I fully agree. Just recently, I saw a car that had a long list of acknowledgements and licenses, including the full text of the GPLv2, that you could view in the tiny info screen on the dashboard. (It didn't have a satnav or an entertainment package, so that was literally the only screen in the car.) Surely, if a car manufacturer can find a place to display that information with the limited screen real estate they have, then a website author, who literally has infinite space through creating new pages and links, should be able to do the same. Jul 25, 2020 at 21:11

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