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I wrote an simple addon/xml theme for some software that is GPL licensed. No modifications were ever made to the GPL licensed code during this time.

Someone took one of my images and is claiming that because the software it was intended to be used with is under a GPL license, anything that comes with it can be taken and cannot be copyrighted.

Can I claim copyright on that image and/or any other part of my addon as it does not modify any part of the original code under the GPL licensed software.

Can I stop people from taking what I create just because it's used with software that is GPL licensed?

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  • It's complicated. Could we, first, ask you to add links to the software you created the add-on to, and to your add-on? Also, tell us how you distributed your add-on, and under what terms people might have got hold of it?
    – MadHatter
    Feb 23 at 23:55
  • Hi. This is the github of the GPL software: github.com/phulshof/RetroFE it uses xml to create layouts/themes although the themes are not part of the original code except for the one that comes with it. Distribution of the layout created is done via discord and other places and includes the code in the above github (pre compiled) but not modified. No files are altered that are present in the github.
    – Bizzy
    Feb 23 at 23:57
  • Thank you, that's helpful. How did people get hold of your creation? Is the image you speak of inside the repository you link to?
    – MadHatter
    Feb 24 at 0:02
  • No, the image is not in the repository. I'll try and package up the xml/images as a standalone item shortly (too big otherwise)
    – Bizzy
    Feb 24 at 0:03
  • filemail.com/d/eeyewnmccsycjgv <- that contains the layout with images to be used in conjunction with the repository above. In order to use it with the repo above, you place it in the /layouts folder once retrofe has been installed
    – Bizzy
    Feb 24 at 0:06

2 Answers 2

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Written in a comment:

RetroFE is a frontend for launching old arcade games etc and the XML is used to show pictures etc on screen. Nothing in the XML actually contains any output from RetroFE. Tags in the xml are passed to RetroFE's xml engine to display images etc on screen and control animations of said images.

Based on this information, the XML file is input to the RetroFE application in the same way that a source file is input to the compiler or a DocX file is input to MS Word.

Such input files are considered to be independent works of the program that reads them. That means that the license of RetroFE does not affect in any way how you can license the input files.

Someone took one of my images and is claiming that because the software it was intended to be used with is under a GPL license, anything that comes with it can be taken and cannot be copyrighted.

The claim from that person is wrong on so many sides that I don't know where to start.

First of all, the GPL license is a copyright license, which means that it is only effective for material that can be copyrighted.

And while the GPL has a "viral" aspect, that works via the concept of derivative works and input files to an application are not derivative works of that application.

Can I claim copyright on that image and/or any other part of my addon as it does not modify any part of the original code under the GPL licensed software.

You can claim copyright on anything that you create (unless you have a signed contract that causes other rules to apply to a particular work). The context in which you create something can only dictate under what terms you can make it available to others.

In this case, there is not even a restriction on what licensing terms you can use.

Can I stop people from taking what I create just because it's used with software that is GPL licensed?

Yes, you most definitely can.

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  • So if I can stop people doing this, what would be the best license to use? Something like an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) or similar? I still want to share the theme/layout as normal but just restrict modifications and distribution of modified themes using my created images only.
    – Bizzy
    Mar 2 at 16:55
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This is a fuzzy area. Consider retaining legal counsel, to the extent that it's worth fighting over (i.e. if you only spent a couple of hours of work on this, consider how much a lawyer is going to cost, and seriously evaluate whether you want to bother).

Based on what you have described, it sounds like the GPL'd software is rendering some sort of XML into a user interface, in the same way that a web browser renders HTML into a document or website. Since nobody in their right mind claims that HTML is a derivative work of the web browser that happens to display it, it sounds to me as if this person doesn't have a leg to stand on. However, there are complicating factors to consider:

  • Is the XML useful independently of the software? For example, are there other programs that can (usefully) consume the same XML?
  • Was the XML written to some publicly-specified API?
  • Was the XML published with the express consent of the person who created it? If not, then it's not under the GPL.
  • Did the archive containing the XML also contain a copy of the GPL?
  • If the XML was published by the same person who created it, was there a README document clarifying which parts of the archive were available under which license?
  • If the XML was published by a different person, did the creator specifically know that there would be a GPL license in the archive?
  • What did the creator intend to happen w.r.t. licensing, and is there credible and specific evidence of this?
  • Who created the GPL'd software, and what do they think of this dispute?

All of the above questions will influence the answer to this question in significant ways. For example:

  • The XML may or may not have been released under the GPL. This is primarily a function of whether the creator intentionally placed it under that license, but specific requirements might vary by jurisdiction.
  • The reuser may or may not have estoppel rights, if they reasonably believed the XML was released under the GPL, and the creator or publisher caused or contributed to that belief.
  • The XML may or may not be a derivative work of the software. This is a function of copyright law, and might vary by jurisdiction.
  • Various limitations or exceptions to copyright, such as fair use and the merger doctrine, might apply depending on (again) jurisdiction and other specifics.
  • If the XML is a derivative work and it was not released under the GPL, then it's a license violation, which entitles the creator of the software to sue you. It does not magically cause the XML to become GPL-licensed (but that's one possible outcome of a lawsuit).
  • If the creator of the software is unwilling to sue you, then it is unlikely that anyone else can sue you, either.
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  • Hi, thank you for your answer. The xml is actually irrelevant as its just a tool used to display the image in question that was taken. The XML was created entirely in Notepad++. It is distributed as part of a bigger package which includes the GPL'd software. This package comes with a readme which has a disclaimer that no part of the theme is to be modified or distributed without permission and the person who took the image was approached and asked politely not to use it, they refused and lost their youtube channel after a strike but are claiming everything that uses RetroFE is under GPL.
    – Bizzy
    Mar 2 at 9:42
  • As stated at the beginning, no part of RetroFE included with the bigger package was ever modified and the theme doesn't modify it either. It is an image from the theme that was taken and not the xml. The person who created the GPL'd software has never approached us about it. If an alternate software uses the same functions and or tags used in the XML then I guess it could be used in the same way as RetroFE uses it. All images can be used with any other software though.
    – Bizzy
    Mar 2 at 9:43
  • Also, just to add, the package doesn't come with a license explicit to the theme, just the comment in the readme.
    – Bizzy
    Mar 2 at 9:50

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