I am developing an Electron app that I would like to distribute on the App Store. The app runs completely fine without any GPL parts or elements.

The app itself has plugin support and communicates with them through the command line, means the plugins are standalone applications that can also ran independently.

Therefore I would like to offer the main app on the App Store without plugins. The plugins or extensions are downloadable through my public repository on GitHub where of course all plugins are open source.

Does that interfere with the intent of GPL? As far as I understand the intent of GPL is free open source software and the opportunity to modify software, and I think I cover this?

  1. My closed-source main app has no GPL elements and can run without plugins
  2. Plugins can be executed through the command-line and don't require the host-application.
  3. All plugins are open source and publicly forked on my GitHub repo.
  4. The plugins are loaded from a user-readable/writable location

Does anything I explained smell like it could potentially violate the purpose of GPL?

Clarification: The plugins are able to load an image file and create a PNG out of it. I would like to use libraries like FFMPEG for this.

% plugin-a /path/to/image/file.HEIC -o /output/path.png
  • Could you clarify what is the "App Store", and what does it have to do with whether you might be allowed to use GPL-licensed components?
    – David Z
    Sep 3, 2020 at 8:07
  • I am not sure I understand the question news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12827624
    – HelloWorld
    Sep 3, 2020 at 13:20

1 Answer 1


Based on your description, it doesn't seem like these are really "plugins" at all - they can function entirely separately from your main application, and don't need anything from the main application. That sounds like a separate program, so the GPL which covers those programs wouldn't extend to your Electron app. The FSF have their views on this in the GPL FAQ:

A main program that uses simple fork and exec to invoke plug-ins and does not establish intimate communication between them results in the plug-ins being a separate program.

which again sounds like your case.

As to whether you are interfering with the intent of the GPL, that depends who you ask. The FSF would like pretty much everything to be Free Software (capitals deliberate), would prefer that your release all your software as GPL and that you do not run it on Apple hardware which does not give users the freedoms they desire. Other groups may view the intent of the GPL differently.

  • Thanks for your answer! Indeed, the quote you are referring sounds like how I would establish the connection. You say "that depends who you ask". I am a sole software developer creating an app, who would apply or enforce the rules in this case? If that is such a blurry area, which side would be "right" in this case?
    – HelloWorld
    Sep 2, 2020 at 20:49
  • 1
    The GPL (and any other software license) derives its power from copyright law, so in the long run it is the courts that would decide whether something is a copyright violation or not. If the copyright holders of ffmpeg believed that what you were doing was not in compliance with the GPL, they could begin legal proceedings against you, and in the long run the court would be asked to decide whether your work was a derivative work of the GPL work or not. If your code is not a derivative work, then the GPL has no influence over what you can do. Sep 3, 2020 at 10:55

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