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Assume the following scenario:

Alice obtains a GPL-licensed code and make modifications to it. However, she does not release the modifications to public, but instead uploads the modified code to Google Drive under a secret link, and sends that link to Bob (or uploads it to a private repository and sends Bob access credentials). Moreover, Alice allows Bob to share the link itself to whomever under any conditions.

Bob sends the link to Charlie, additionally requiring that Charlie does not distribute the link, nor the software downloaded from that link, to anybody.

Is this a violation of GPL, and if yes, who does violate and why?


I think that Alice does not violate GPL because she does not place any restrictions on distibuting the code, and simply distributes it under GPL terms. Bob may be in violation, but... does he distribute the code at all?

GPL states:

To “propagate” a work means to do anything with it that, without permission, would make you directly or secondarily liable for infringement under applicable copyright law, except executing it on a computer or modifying a private copy. Propagation includes copying, distribution (with or without modification), making available to the public, and in some countries other activities as well.

To “convey” a work means any kind of propagation that enables other parties to make or receive copies. Mere interaction with a user through a computer network, with no transfer of a copy, is not conveying.

Simply forwarding a link to the software, even with additional restrictions, does not seem to fit under "propagation" (and thus "conveying"), because it can not make Bob liable for infringement. (At least, in many jurisdictions, see, e.g., https://law.stackexchange.com/questions/4360/is-it-infringement-to-give-a-link-to-a-copyrighted-file) Or can it?

Moreover, I would say that Bob can forward a link to Charlie, even if he does not have any license for the software behind the link. So GPL should not be applicable to Bob's action at all, because Bob does not any license at all. Is this wrong, and if yes, then how?

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  • Is Alice complying with all of the GPL conditions (e.g. providing source code, license file, attribution,...)? Is Bob telling Charlie not to distribute the link, or not to redistribute the code after Charlie downloaded it from Alice? Dec 16, 2022 at 9:11
  • Alice complies with all conditions. Bob tells Charlie not to distribute both the link and the code.
    – Petr
    Dec 16, 2022 at 9:13
  • Alice is fine, but Bob seems to try to put an additional restriction on the distribution which is null and void, based on Section 6 of GPLv2 or Section 10 of GPLv3. So as soon as Charlie has received the code he is free to exercise all the rights given to him under GPL. Dec 16, 2022 at 9:43
  • But how does Bob violate (say) section 10 of GPL v3, if he does not convey the work in the first place? Or if he conveys, then how exactly does the definition of "convey" map to Bob's actions?
    – Petr
    Dec 16, 2022 at 10:31
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    @apsillers I think the right wording would be: "Sharing a link to a resource known to be an obvious copyright infringement can constitute secondary liability..." (example: Pirate Bay). But this is not the case for the code provided by Alice. Dec 16, 2022 at 13:47

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'convey' means 'to make available to' or 'give the software to' in this context. So if you make a piece of software available by whatever means to another person, you need to have a license to be allowed to do so.

For the GPL this means that you must make available the corresponding source code to all recipients of the software, and that you may not impose any additional restrictions.

Alice is fine and fulfills her obligations. The part with 'no additional restrictions' is where Bob is failing by stating that the software must not be shared further.

Strictly technical, Alice is only required to provide the source to people she distributes the software to. Thus she and Bob can both ask that the link to the sources is not shared further - but neither may require that the source is not shared further.

Given above situation, Bob may ask that the link is not shared further, but he may not ask that the code and software is not shared further. The people who receive the software from Bob might then download the software from the link provided by Bob (or Alice) and would have to provide their own hosting of the code (or means to provide it to their 'customers') should they decide to pass it along to others. Each distributor must uphold their offer to provide sources for at least 3 years (GPL v3 §6b):

Convey the object code in, or embodied in, a physical product (including a physical distribution medium), accompanied by a written offer, valid for at least three years and valid for as long as you offer spare parts or customer support for that product model, to give anyone who possesses the object code either (1) a copy of the Corresponding Source for all the software in the product that is covered by this License, on a durable physical medium customarily used for software interchange, for a price no more than your reasonable cost of physically performing this conveying of source, or (2) access to copy the Corresponding Source from a network server at no charge.

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  • "Convey" does not simply mean "to make available". The word "convey" has a specific definition in the license text, that centers on the concept of whether "without permission, [Bob will be] directly or secondarily liable for infringement under applicable copyright law". And it's not clear to me how Bob is "conveying" under this definition. (I wonder whether OS.SE has a tag similar to SO's language-lawyer?)
    – Petr
    Dec 16, 2022 at 11:53

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