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I've been reading a whole lot and can't seem to find this specific question. I am currently making a software which will ideally be used to provide information to people that pay for consultations. This software uses a slightly modified project that I found and am using, which is licensed under GPL2.0.

This software will not be distributed to any customers, but rather they would pay to essentially provide me with data and have me walk them through all of the information that comes from that data. They would know from the start that they are not buying the software, per se, but rather that it is just a tool to be used during the consultation, which is what they are paying for.

My question is: Would this fall under distribution of the software or not? Since the software is the cornerstone of these consultations, would there be an argument to be made that they are essentially purchasing the software, and would I then have to provide them with the normal benefits purchasing something under the license provides?

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    I confess to being confused by the amount of business model there is in this question, little of which is relevant (Philip having put his finger on the salient point). Do I correctly understand that clients come to you with data, which you enter into a computer program, then give them the results, discuss those results with them, and charge them for that?
    – MadHatter
    Jan 27, 2023 at 11:15
  • @MadHatter Philip basically nailed it, yeah. Just to clarify to clarity's sake, you are correct. Data is given to me, the program analyzes the data and can spit out results that would be interpreted by me and explained to the client. The interface of the software would be shown during the consultations, but I can't imagine that's damning assuming what Philip said is true.
    – Sqwan
    Jan 30, 2023 at 21:32
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    That's good to hear! I encourage you to accept Philip's answer, by clicking the "tick" outline next to it. This drives the reputation system for both him and you, and (equally importantly) makes it clear that you got an answer you're happy with, and thus "puts the question to bed", as it were.
    – MadHatter
    Jan 30, 2023 at 23:35

2 Answers 2

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To explicitly state what I think you already know: the GPL requirements kick in only on distribution of the software; the GPL v2 itself explicitly states "The act of running the Program is not restricted" (Section 0). In your case, you are not distributing the software to your customers so you are not required to meet any GPL requirements.

Since the software is the cornerstone of these consultations, would there be an argument to be made that they are essentially purchasing the software, and would I then have to provide them with the normal benefits purchasing something under the license provides?

No; that would be a dramatic extension of copyright law in any jurisdiction I am aware of. The (viable) business model here is one in which you are using your knowledge to best interpret the software output rather than access to the software itself - your skills are what is being sold, not the software itself.

(Legal advice on the Internet is worth less than you paid for it, talk to an actual lawyer in your jurisdiction, blah, blah, blah)

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No, not for the use case you describe.

There are two aspects to keep in mind here: the software application and its source code.

Even if you modify the source code of a GPL software for your use, you are under no obligation to distribute your modifications unless the software is part of the output (the product) of your consultation. Using a GPL licensed software to automate or process any kind of data also does not oblige you in any manner to make the processed data freely available to anyone.

Let's consider some examples.

Example 1: Your client gives you some data to analyse. You use a GPL licensed software to analyse the data and offer the output of the data from the software as part of your analysis.

  • GPL doesn't even come to the picture here because you are not modifying the source code of the software application in any manner nor or you distributing it. You are simply using a software to do some work. If your clients wants to know how you do it, GPL doesn't force you to disclose to others that you are using a GPL software to analyse the data. Even if they ask you to share the GPL software with them, you have no obligation to do so.

Example 2: Your client gives you some data and they want you to offer them different analysis of this data. You customize an existing GPL licensed software that can process such data and create the different analysis the client wants. When the client gives you the data, you run it through the customised software, and only give them the output data feed from the software.

  • GPL license allows you to modify the software code. But since you are not distributing the software to others, and only using it personally (even if for a commercial purpose), you are under no obligations to make the source code modifications available to anyone.

Example 3: Your client wants to do some data analysis and they want you to create some algorithms / processes for them to generate different outcomes by varying the data. You customize an existing GPL licensed software that can process such data. You hand over this software to the client so that they can feed it different data and generate the various outcomes from it they desire.

  • In this case, the GPL license obliges you to make all the modifications you made to the software code public to anyone who demands it (including your clients if they ask for it) since you have modified and are distributing this modified software to others.

Note: Even if you distribute a GPL software, along with the source code of the modifications you made as required by the GPL, you are under no obligation to do it for free. You can still charge for it. But ofcourse, once the code is out there as open source, its commercial viability decreases.

Summary:

  1. GPL doesn't prohibit you from making commercial use of any GPL licensed software. Nor does it oblige you to reveal to anyone that you are using a GPL licensed software.

  2. GPL doesn't force you to reveal any changes you make to a GPL licensed software unless you plan to share these modifications / customisation with anyone.

  3. GPL doesn't prohibit you from charging for distribution or for your software skills in creating any code used in the GPL licensed software.

  4. GPL does force you to make all source codes available to anyone who wants, if you distribute a GPL licensed software that you have created or modified in any manner.

(Disclaimer: Always consult a local lawyer as country specific / locale specific laws vary, and some or all of what is said here may not apply in some countries).

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    The GPL does not require you to make the source code available to the general public. You are only required to make it available to recipients of the software. Jan 29, 2023 at 16:54
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    The fact that people to whom you choose to give the software are empowered to redistribute it themselves doesn't turn into an obligation on you to distribute it to anyone who asks. You are simply wrong when you write "you will be required to make the source code available to anyone who requests it". The FSF are very clear about this. I think the rest of your answer is pretty good, though; I'd upvote it if you fixed the error by removing summary point 4.
    – MadHatter
    Jan 29, 2023 at 17:20
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    @sfxedit I'm sorry, but you're simply wrong about this, not least because the original author is not bound by the rules of his/her own licence grant. If you get a GPL binary from Fred, it is Fred who is obliged to provide you the source on request, not the original author - and his obligation arises solely from having given you a copy of the binary. If you choose to redistribute GPL software, you need to be aware of this obligation.
    – MadHatter
    Jan 30, 2023 at 7:13
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    "Once I have the software, from where ever, GPL requires its creators to give me the source code on request. The creator-developers, and later contributors, cannot refuse to share the source code if I am a user of the application" (There's a technicality on whether "the creators" or someone else must provide the source but I will not indulge that more.) You are correct here: Once someone has the software they're entitled to receive the corresponding sources, and the same GPL usage conditions. But this is not the same as "public to anyone who demands it": Only recipients get these rights.
    – ecm
    Jan 30, 2023 at 7:31
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    Example 3 is not correct that the GPL "[obliges you to make] the software code public to anyone who demands it." See gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#GPLRequireSourcePostedPublic
    – Brandin
    Jan 30, 2023 at 9:01

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