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https://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#InternalDistribution :

Is making and using multiple copies within one organization or company “distribution”?

No, in that case the organization is just making the copies for itself. As a consequence, a company or other organization can develop a modified version and install that version through its own facilities, without giving the staff permission to release that modified version to outsiders.

However, when the organization transfers copies to other organizations or individuals, that is distribution. In particular, providing copies to contractors for use off-site is distribution.

The scenario:

  • We make software for internal use
  • The company operates in several countries.
  • There is one registered company in country A, one in country B. Country A is outside the EU, country B is inside the EU.
  • All internally created software is developed and used by people in both countries.

Question:

  • If we use GPL-licensed libraries in the software we produce, what rules apply?
1
  • It doesn’t matter how it is defined. If you are sure the receiver of the software does not sue you, you have not a problem. (However in the Long run it’s safer to avoid it since you never know when you want to extract parts of the system and sell it).
    – eckes
    Jan 17 at 1:23
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To answer the question in the title ("What is the legal definition of a company/organization?"), that depends on the laws in the concerned countries and may also depend on how the company is exactly structured.

I will assume that the part in country A and the part in country B are legally independent companies that are both subsidiaries of a larger holding company. Please correct me if that assumption is incorrect.

If the companies in A and B are independent legal entities, which would be the case if my assumption holds, then as far as the GPL is concerned they are two different companies.

This means that if you share GPL code with coworkers from the other company, you are distributing GPL code to them and all requirements of the GPL apply. This means that you have to offer the source code to the company that received the compiled binary. If you are developing the code together, that should not be a problem.

The GPL does not require you to publicly distribute source code, unless you also publicly distribute binaries.

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  • 2
    Good answer; I might also point to the similar FAQ question "Does moving a copy to a majority-owned, and controlled, subsidiary constitute distribution?" ("... that will not make a practical difference. The subsidiary ... won't redistribute the program unless the parent company decides to do so.")
    – apsillers
    Jan 15 at 14:31
  • 4
    Suppose A distributes to B, then B is spun off. B would no longer be controlled by the parent company, and could presumably redistribute the software.
    – Barmar
    Jan 15 at 16:36
  • Am I correctly understanding from your emphasis on company that as long as someone at B (presumably part of the IT dept) can get a copy of the source there's no requirement for A to provide it to other random employees at B? Jan 16 at 2:38
  • 3
    @Dan The software is offered to the persona ficta of Company B, and that is what should have the corresponding source code. It is not legally required for any particular natural persons who execute Company B's actions to have access to the code.
    – apsillers
    Jan 16 at 3:54
  • 1
    @Barmar: If that becomes a problem, it means someone at A really screwed up the due diligence step before spinning off B. Of course, if for some reason A wants the spun-off B to have binaries but not have source, then you might have issues.
    – Kevin
    Jan 16 at 4:07
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The key insight is probably that a company counts as a person, legally.

When you (personally) copy a GPL'd program from one of your own computers to another, you don't need to give yourself source. You're not distributing the program each time you run cp.

If you're running doing that copy as part of employment, you're doing it as part of the company. Legally, the company is doing it. So the same conclusion applies. It's not a distribution.

Now, handing it off to a different company (even under the same umbrella) may well be, but since you say all the companies do development, all the companies likely have the source code (or at least access to it), so the GPL source requirements are met.

I'm general though, what distribution means is a country-specific legal question — something the company's lawyers should provide an answer to.

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  • Don’t think “company”, where as you say, it’s fairly obvious. Think of something like a chess club, an organisation that doesn’t actually have any legal existence in its own right, but is just a bunch of people getting together for a common purpose. If one member of the organising committee modifies a GPL program for other committee members to use, is that public distribution?
    – Mike Scott
    Jan 16 at 8:23
  • @MikeScott, No, it would be private distribution among the committee members. Only the committee members need to get rights under the GPL. Jan 16 at 8:51
  • @MikeScott why would I not think company? That's what the question is about. Second bullet point.
    – derobert
    Jan 16 at 9:32
  • @derobert The OP’s specific use case is a a company, but the question says “What is the legal definition of a company/organisation?”.
    – Mike Scott
    Jan 16 at 10:15
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    @MikeScott That would be much more a question for Law than for here, and is going to be jurisdiction specific. The GPL point is that covered in the first sentence of the answer. Jan 16 at 12:16

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