I confess I am ignorant about open source software licensing and am trying to understand it better.

I work for a retailer that has an ecommerce site. Our ecommerce site is built in-house and uses various open-source libraries.

I am struggling to understand how the licenses of our third-party libraries pertain to us. For example, if we use a library licensed under GPL v2, what does this mean to us?

I have read the GPL v2 as well as discussions about it, and it is still unclear to me what exactly constitutes "distributing" or "copying" licensed software.

We don't sell software. We don't publish software, at least not in the sense of an app store or software vendor or package repo. But what about, say, javascript that runs on client browsers? Does that count as "distributing" or "copying" software in a way that invokes the GPL license restrictions? Are there other common licenses that trigger restrictions for this kind of use?


It depends

As I see it, your question has two parts:

  1. How do free licenses of third-party libraries affect the license of the resulting software?
  2. What are the effects of free licenses on software that is not distributed, but run on a server?

Before answering those two questions however, it is important to note that there is a difference between permissive licenses and copyleft licenses. Since you mentioned GPLv2, my answer will focus on copyleft licenses.


If you use copyleft licensed libraries in your software, then your software must be licensed the same way. Because this is not always desired, many libraries do not use the GPL, but the LGPL instead, which allows the use in proprietary software.

Server-side software

If you never distribute your software, licensing is of little consequence. Running it on your server does not qualify as distribution. However, it is sometimes desired that software run on a server also needs to make its source code available, which is the exact reason why the AGPL was invented.

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