For a popular program licensed under GPL3, a system of plugins exists. The program and the plugins are closely interoperable and exchange large structures of data, so the plugins will necessarily be also under GPL3.


Someone is willing to pay me to develop a certain plugin because someone else is paying her for the development.

I will deliver the code to my client and in turn she to her client, and both my client and the final client are aware of the plugin being GPL3.

Although the license says that anybody requiring the source code, the source will be delivered, I think they are not planning to publish it initially (although they conform to give it if someone requires it).


They are willing to pay me for developing this plugin because they plan some kind of monetization of this plugin (I'm not clear on how, though). But my client is a company and the client of my client also a commercial company.

I know I will be "the author" by the fact of being me the one that thinks, models, architectures and finally codes.

But... Question

Do they as payers retain any special right further than "getting it done"?

Do I retain the ability to "publish it to github"? Or as I'm being paid, the decission to publish is theirs and I can't do unless I request permission from them?

I'm not having any intention to break their business up. If they pay me, the most natural is I don't publish it. I just deliver the code to them and forget.

But maybe after some time, for any reason I feel it'd be valuable for the society to have it in github.

I wonder if

  1. I can just publish it, or
  2. I have to require permissions from them, or
  3. I can publish but I have to mention them as holders of any kind of right for the mere fact of having paid for the plugin to exist.

Pointers to specific paragraphs of the supporting documentation will be appreciated.

  • 7
    Are you developing this plugin as part of your employment, and if so, what country are you in? If instead you are developing this under a simple contract, what does the contract say about the ownership of the copyright in the work you are doing?
    – MadHatter
    Oct 16, 2020 at 10:27
  • 2
    Employment => I'm not actually an employee of neither of those. I'm a freelance coder to this effect. // Country => Spain, my client in Spain. His respective client I don't know. // What does the contract say => We are starting the relation, so the "order / agreement of service" is to be written yet. I'm exploring if I'm happy to accept. Oct 16, 2020 at 11:16
  • 2
    This seems to be a question about contracts, not about licences. Oct 17, 2020 at 21:49
  • Please go back and look at what it says in your contract. If there is no contract you can do what you like. If there is a contract, you can do only what it allows. Either way, if you think your client's client is relevant, can you explain how? Oct 17, 2020 at 23:03
  • 1
    I'm not a lawyer, but the fact that the software copyright owner has no plans to distribute the software seems significant. The GPL applies to software that the copyright owner has chosen to distribute. Without distribution of the software, I would think that a license would be irrelevant.
    – Jason
    Oct 18, 2020 at 12:53

3 Answers 3


So it seems that you're doing this as a piece of contract work, not under employment rules, so the issue of work-for-hire probably doesn't enter into it.

The rules about what you can publish and when come entirely out of the contract between you and the payer, and apparently that's not written yet. That's great news. A good contract sets out each side's expectations clearly and simply, so that everyone knows what to expect if things go well, and also if/when they don't.

If it's important to you that you retain the right to publish this work under GPL, then you should put something in the contract to make that clear. Do not start exploring the possibilities of stuff that everybody understands is normal in cases like this; if you publish later, and they get angry about it, "everyone knows that the author can still put it up on GitHub" is not a defence you want to be making. If you want it clear, put it in the contract. That way, everybody will know up front that you intend to do this; they can push back on whether, and when, it's done, and if you're not happy with that, you can walk away before signing.

Look at it from the other side: if the client's happy with having you republish under GPL, they won't mind having that in the contract. If they do mind, now is when you need to know - not after you've written the code and slapped it up on GitHub.


This depends on the contracts for this development effort. The GPLv3 explicitly covers the case that you are doing development exclusively for someone else, and this is OK (section 2, basic permissions):

You may convey covered works to others for the sole purpose of having them make modifications exclusively for you, or provide you with facilities for running those works, provided that you comply with the terms of this License in conveying all material for which you do not control copyright. Those thus making or running the covered works for you must do so exclusively on your behalf, under your direction and control, on terms that prohibit them from making any copies of your copyrighted material outside their relationship with you.

In that quote, “you” is not you asking the question, but the client. This part of the GPL allows the client to give you the GPLv3-covered program and to have you make modifications exclusively for them. If the client decides to publish your modifications they would be bound by the GPLv3, but you would not be allowed to publish your work without consent from your client.

This snippet from the GPLv3 imposes some requirements that such a contract must fulfil:

  • the changes must be made exclusively for the client
  • you must work under the direction and control of the client (i.e. you have been instructed to perform these modifications)
  • you are contractually bound to not make other copies of the client's modifications (this doesn't affect your rights to the original, publicly available version of the GPL program)

Why does the GPLv3 explicitly allow this, since it seems like it would circumvent other provisions of the license? The GPL is copyleft, but not anti-commercial or anti-monetization.

Making use of software as authorized by the license terms often requires running it on rented hardware (e.g. a cloud server), or to make modifications of the program. There is general agreement that giving a GPL program to employees is not distribution/conveyance in the sense of the GPL. But a business might not have in-house capabilities to perform the modification. This section makes it clear that your client can exercise their rights from the GPL license by engaging cloud providers or external consultants to perform services on their behalf, without being in a worse legal position than doing everything in-house. Importantly, they remain able to make private modifications.

So as to your concrete questions:

  1. Can you just publish it? No, you're bound by the contract with your client. You should treat the GPL software as effectively proprietary within this contractual relationship.
  2. Do you have to require permission from them? Yes, your contract should explicitly discuss what you may do with your modifications if you would like to publish them.
  3. Could you publish the modifications when attributing them? Depending on your contract and on local laws, you may not even be the copyright holder for your modifications (e.g. work for hire). Even if you hold the copyright, your contract has likely assigned exclusive rights to the client. So mere attribution is not generally sufficient, and your contract should explicitly cover this case if you would like to publish modifications. The GPL doesn't directly require attribution, but certain attributions must be preserved if they are present.
  • 3
    Mostly I agree, but the concrete answers depend entirely on the details of the contract. If the contract specifies the copyright stays with the OP and the payer simply gets rights to use (as mine do), then the OP may well be free to republish.
    – MadHatter
    Oct 16, 2020 at 10:45
  • About "direction and control", IP laws in Spain usually consider "employess are always under direction and control, freelancers are in the case they follow an office-time told by some boss, plus the boss tells I want this done this specific way". In this case I'm acting a freelancer and only I'm given the functional expectations "I want to be able to use it this way and the plugin to do this thing" but I'm absolutely free to choose the architecture, the way to solve the problems and implement it. They even don't give me drawings with wireframes. I'm free to do what I want how I want. Oct 16, 2020 at 11:22
  • In fact they hire me specially to "think the solution", not just to code a solution they have thought. They are unable to design what they want. I'd evne say, the fact it is a "plugin" is even my decission, probably they don't care if it's a plugin or a direct modification of the core product or what, provided they can finally have the functionallity they'd like. Oct 16, 2020 at 11:23
  • @XaviMontero, is the company contracting you also Spanish (and thus using the same understanding of what "direction and control" means) or do they come from a different country? Oct 16, 2020 at 11:28
  • 1
    @XaviMontero I don't want to speculate how “direction and control” in GPLv3 should be interpreted in the context of Spanish IP and employment laws. I think this section of the GPL clearly doesn't just talk about employees, but about contractors who work on behalf of a client.
    – amon
    Oct 18, 2020 at 9:39

Probably not, but i am not a laywer: Because the (I suppose your contract states that the rights of works created are with the customer) copyright owner the source code copyrights did not license it to you, i do not see how your relationship to the customer would be affected by it.

GPL is a license which specifies the minimal rights of the receiver of a distributed software. You did not receive distributed software. If the copyright owner decides to use the only internally (in which publication is not needed) or redistributes it, is probably not up to you to decide.

Anyway, if you have the feeling that you contract is loose enough you can try such a career suicidal move, but honestly talk to a lawyer before.

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