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If software is licenced under a GPL license, can it be used without restriction in a corporate/commercial environment? The software that I am refering to is QGIS which provides this description:

QGIS is a user friendly Open Source Geographic Information System (GIS) licensed under the GNU General Public License. QGIS is an official project of the Open Source Geospatial Foundation (OSGeo)

I am of the understanding that it can be used (that the software is still considered free and opensource), while others in my office think differently when it is used in a commercial/corporate environment. They believe that once the software is used in a commercial environment, it is no longer considered free and falls under a difference licence (they didn't actually specify a difference licence, but was rather what would they believe would occur). We are not selling the software, but rather use it for analysis.

Would anyone be able to shed some light on the subject to help clear things up?

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    You say that "while others in my office think differently when it is used in a commercial/corporate environment" - but you do not say why these people think different about this. Iit would be helpful - in order to be able to specifically address those concerns in an answer - to know what they are. – Free Radical Jul 31 '15 at 6:36
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    The question can be improved by providing a reasoning for "I am of the understanding that it can be used" – Michael Schumacher Jul 31 '15 at 20:38
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    You might simply look into how (and how many) corporations use (GNU/)Linux. – user2338816 Aug 2 '15 at 4:12
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    Legal at work (formula 500 corporation) say stay the heck away from GPL. They are open to BSD, MIT, or Apache PL. They do not like GPL 3.0 or 2.0. There is, in my non-professional opinion, risk for loss of "magic smoke" and profitability and risk of liability for improper function that they don't want engineering to touch it. If it might ever be customer-facing then GPL is "not no, but heck no!". – EngrStudent Aug 2 '15 at 16:28
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    @EngrStudent all those companies that run Linux on their (web) servers seem to have a different opinion of that. I don't know about the forumala 500 racers, but in 2013, more than 90% of fortune 500 companies used Linux in some form, according to Fortune: fortune.com/2013/05/06/how-linux-conquered-the-fortune-500 – Martijn Aug 3 '15 at 13:55
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Software licensed with any GNU license can be used and even modified everywhere, including in a corporate environment, without any restrictions.

However be aware that if you (or the company) ever make changes to the software and want to distribute it, it must be distributed with full source code, on the same license terms as the original software.

Also if you make changes to the software and it is licensed using Affero license (eg. AGPL 3.0), and your company is providing web access to this software, then you'll also be required to publish full source code (including your changes).

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    Even if you don't make changes, you need to distribute the original unmodified source code along with the binary. (This is specific to the GPL). But indeed, " not distributing at all" is also a valid choice. – MSalters Jul 31 '15 at 11:09
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    @MSalters You don't need to distribute the source code with the binaries, you just need to make it accessible. – curiousdannii Jul 31 '15 at 12:39
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    @curiousdannii: You need to do slightly more than that; you'd also have to include with the binaries a pointer to the location where you've made them accessible. (E.g. URL of webserver) But as a programmer, that's just pass-by reference versus pass-by-value ;) – MSalters Jul 31 '15 at 12:53
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    worth noting that private b2b distribution still counts as distribution. Some corporate environments have really weird business relationships where it gets hard to realize that giving that modified tool to that other person counts as redistribution. – xenoterracide Aug 1 '15 at 19:39
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    And, IIRC, even if you don't accept the terms of the license, so that technically the software is not under the GPL and you actually don't have any license for it, if it's in your possession you are still allowed to use it (but not modify it). Because the GPL is purely a copyright license, and using software is not something covered by copyright law; modification and distribution are. – RemcoGerlich Aug 1 '15 at 21:10
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Of course free software can be used and even modified without restrictions in a corporate or for-profit environment!

(Edit: Re-distribution of modified free software requires that you make the source of your modifications available - which some insists is a "restriction". Without going into that debate, please see the GNU GPL FAQ on internal distribution. It should be pointed out than when you purchase proprietary software for internal company use, the license on that do not allow you to re-distribute it outside teh company. Often, a propretary software license will further restrict the number of computers inside your company that it may simultaneously be installed on)

Let's look at some of the more common objections to free software you may find in a corporate environment:

  • If it is free software, I will not receive any support.
    This is simply not true for most free software. For instance, the Drupal CMS provides several ways of receiving support. Some at no cost, drawing on the collective skills of thousands of dedicated and skilled developers and power users, some paid professional services. If you don't trust gratis support, for all major free software distributions there exists companies that will provide you with the same type of support you'll receive for proprietary software - for a fee.

  • Other large corporations don't use free software. Why should we experiment?
    This is also false. According to Red Hat, a company specializing in free software for corporate users: “More than 90% of Fortune Global 500 companies use Red Hat products and solutions.”

  • Our company needs to buy and use a proprietary software to get a competitive edge.
    If you believe that, you could get ahead of the competition by picking free software as a starting point. Since you have the source code, you could go ahead and improve critical parts of it. This will probably give you the edge faster than buying some proprietary software with no source code available. Note that unless you start distributing binaries (or sell a internet-based service if the license on the software is AGPL), you are not obliged to share your improvements with anyone. You're not going to be loved by the free software community if you do this, but there is nothing in the free software licenses that stops you from doing this.

  • Won't programmers that make free software starve - or at least rapidly move on to some more profitable endeavour?
    There is no evidence of this. There exists profitable business models for free software, and many free software project that has been continued to be maintained and used for decades. As long as there are engaged users, free software seems to be maintained.

  • Isn't free software written by amateurs that is unable to secure a job in the real software industry?
    Indeed some free software are written by bozos, and you should not use it. However, free software is a real industry, and free software companies with a successful business model pays a competitive salary to its staff. In addition, the ruthless peer review that takes place in competently run free software projects makes for a much more thorough quality assurance process than you'll find in some closed source projects. And since you have the source code available, you could always get it vetted by a professional programmer to determine whether it is created by software professionals or not. But beware: Being free software is not by itself a sign of high quality, (nor is being proprietary).

  • But if a free software project run out of steam, will it not leave our company high and dry?
    Like in the world of proprietary software, where companies fail and even succesful companies abandon its software, some free software projects also fail and are abandoned. There are never any guarantees that a software product will be maintained forever. However, when this happens with free software, it may not be the end of the road. Since you have the source code, you can get always pay somebody else to support and maintain it if you really need to continue using it.

If you can think of more objections, please add them to the question, and I'll try to address them. Let us make this the canonical question about corporate objections to free software.

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    @JAB For a start, that's about distribution, not use. – a CVn Jul 31 '15 at 13:52
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    @JAB Specifically for the GNU GPL, the Free Software Foundation addresses this in their GPL FAQ. Their stance is that purely internal use within company premises is not distribution as discussed in the GNU GPL, and thus not subject to the requirement of also making available the source code. See the linked FAQ entry for details. – a CVn Jul 31 '15 at 14:00
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    "Sell an internet-based service" should maybe be "provide an internet-based service;" AGPL rules apply whether or not there's a fee for the service. – cpast Jul 31 '15 at 19:14
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    The OP didn't ask what objections someone might have to using OSS in a corporate environment; just if it were allowed for GPL software (which, of course, it obviously is.) Also, I don't really think putting an entire FAQ in a single answer really matches the SE format very well. It might be better to ask these as separate questions and let them all get thorough answers, then perhaps make a meta post linking all of them if such is desired. – reirab Aug 1 '15 at 19:52
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    "Isn't free software written by amateurs that is unable to secure a job in the real software industry?" - Isn't anyone asking this question in dire need of a grammar checker, whether open source or not? – gnasher729 Aug 2 '15 at 21:56
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The Open Source Initiative considers the GNU GPL and LGPL to be approved licenses, which means that they meet their Open Source Definition. Criteria for qualifying as Open Source licenses include "No Discrimination Against Persons or Groups" and "No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor". From a legal point of view, software covered by any of the many Open Source licenses would be allowable for use in a corporate/commercial environment.

You are not even required to accept the GNU license before running the software, and even if you did, the license states that you are free to run it for any purpose.


The GNU General Public License and Lesser General Public License only address copying (or "conveying", in GPLv3 terminology), not use. In fact, you can use the software for any purpose you want, because you aren't even required to accept the license. From GPLv3:

9. Acceptance Not Required for Having Copies.

You are not required to accept this License in order to receive or run a copy of the Program. Ancillary propagation of a covered work occurring solely as a consequence of using peer-to-peer transmission to receive a copy likewise does not require acceptance. However, nothing other than this License grants you permission to propagate or modify any covered work. These actions infringe copyright if you do not accept this License. Therefore, by modifying or propagating a covered work, you indicate your acceptance of this License to do so.

A similar clause exists, for example, in GPLv2 (paragraph 5) and LGPLv2 (paragraph 9):

You are not required to accept this License, since you have not signed it. However, nothing else grants you permission to modify or distribute the Library or its derivative works. […]


Be careful, however, about sharing modified copies within the company. If, for example, your company has international subsidiaries, a case could be made that a customization made by Acme LLC in the US that is used by Acme Ltd. in the UK is a conveyance that is covered by the GPL. In that case, Acme LLC would be bound by the license.

Nevertheless, each party is explicitly granted permission to run the code by GPLv3:

2. Basic Permissions.

[…] This License explicitly affirms your unlimited permission to run the unmodified Program. […]

And GPLv2 says this in paragraph 0 (emphasis added):

Activities other than copying, distribution and modification are not covered by this License; they are outside its scope. The act of running the Program is not restricted, and the output from the Program is covered only if its contents constitute a work based on the Program (independent of having been made by running the Program). Whether that is true depends on what the Program does.

  • For several years, the GPL was not an accepted OpenSource license. This is because the GPL includes some ambiguous parts that may be in clear violation to the OpenSource rules. The GPL was accepted after the FSF explained that the GPL has to be interpreted in a way that is compliant to the OpenSource definition. There are still some people that interpret the GPL in a way that is incompatible to the OpenSource definition, so be careful with claims about the GPL that are too restrictive. – schily Sep 29 '15 at 13:34
  • @schily Details and citations, please. – 200_success Sep 29 '15 at 14:10
  • Unfortunately, the related information has been removed from the OpenSource.org archives. AFAIR, it was related to the parts of the GPL that are in conflict with the US Copyright law. This is mainly section 0 where it tries to install claims that cannot be legally in a license. You may try archive.org to find the old text from opensource.org – schily Sep 29 '15 at 16:49
  • Hi, the part about using the output of the program is still unclear to me! If I understand correctly, I am allowed to install a GPL licensed program, say, on my server. If my program now uses the API of the GPL licensed program to get some data, and then uses that data for other calculations. Am I allowed to sell the final output of my web based application? – the.polo Jun 6 '17 at 10:03
  • @the.polo Is the output of the program a "derived work" of the program's source code? Unless the program is quine-like, I'd say that it isn't. So, running the code to fetch or process data is not copying/conveying, and thus outside the scope of the GPL. Selling the output is thus allowable. – 200_success Jun 6 '17 at 14:26
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As has been said by everyone, there is no issue with a business using GPL licensed software within its organization. It happens all the time.

I have noticed that many of the answers and comments have raised a concern over distributing the software within the corporation, and its subsidiaries, etc. For example, in this answer, Tomasz states:

However be aware that if you (or the company) ever make changes to the software and want to distribute it, it must be distributed with full source code, on the same license terms as the original software.

And this is completely correct. But it can give the impression that you might be required to make the source available to everyone, which is what scares people.

In fact, the GPL requires you to make the source available to the people receiving the distribution.

Thus, even if you were distributing it to a subsidiary in another country, as long as you provide them with the source you have met the license obligation. Such a distribution should also come with instructions not to release the software outside of the organization.

With that in mind, it is perfectly possible to take an GPL licensed product, customize it heavily for internal use, and then distribute and use it widely through your organization.

This is explicitly covered in the FSF FAQ:

Does the GPL require that source code of modified versions be posted to the public?

The GPL does not require you to release your modified version, or any part of it. You are free to make modifications and use them privately, without ever releasing them. This applies to organizations (including companies), too; an organization can make a modified version and use it internally without ever releasing it outside the organization.

Of course, this now means you have all the hassles of maintaining a private fork.

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    But presumably if someone in your organization were to leak the source code of a modified version of a GPL product, you wouldn't be able to prevent other organizations from using it? – Harry Johnston Dec 6 '18 at 6:41
  • @HarryJohnston, but doesn't this FSF FAQ state an employer could restrict an employee from leaking the code? – csrowell Jun 17 at 21:00
  • ah, I found an even better FAQ regarding internal distribution: "...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..." – csrowell Jun 17 at 21:12
  • @csrowell, neither FAQ appears to address my question, which is what happens if one of your employees releases the source code without permission to do so. Once someone not in your employ has a copy, does the GPL give them the right to use it or not? – Harry Johnston Jun 17 at 21:21
  • I think that would be theft, which is addressed in this Stolen Copy FAQ: "...If the version in question is unpublished and considered by a company to be its trade secret, then publishing it may be a violation of trade secret law, depending on other circumstances. The GPL does not change that. If the company tried to release its version and still treat it as a trade secret, that would violate the GPL, but if the company hasn't released this version, no such violation has occurred." – csrowell Jun 17 at 21:33
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These licenses are very suitable for use in a corporate environment. The licenses used by GNU are the Free Software Foundation family of licenses: GPL, LGPL and AGPL.

These licenses have the restriction that you are obliged to include the source code and release your software under the same license if you distribute the softeware.

If you don't distribute the software, you don't have any further obligations. You do receive some freedoms though.

  • You are guaranteed to receive the source code, and you are free to modify it to suit your particular need.

  • You are free to use the software for any purpose.

  • If the license is the GPLv3 you receive a patent grant for any patents the publisher of the software has.

Examples of software commonly used under the GPL are the Linux kernel and the rest of the GNU/Linux operating system, including the GCC compiler, Git, FileZilla and WordPress, just to name a few. The FireFox browser uses a similar copyleft license.

Almost all corporate environments make use of GPL licensed software. 90% of fortune 500 companies use Linux in some way, and there is a lot more GPL software than just Linux.

  • The 2nd paragraph is confusing. It suggests something about all of your software that you release. – ctrl-alt-delor Aug 6 '15 at 22:47
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The simplest way to think about the GPL is that it means you have to distribute software in the form of source code. You can distribute pre-compiled binaries as well, if you like, but the primary form of software is source and that's what you get and give.

More pithily: binaries are optional, source is not.

Obviously, this has very little impact on whether a person or company can use the source code they have obtained obtain, if any.

  • @negora Your description of Free-Software is wrong. Free-Software is about freedom. You equate Free-Software ≈ Open-Source-Software, this is correct, but will not help. As Open-Source-Software is not about the source. I know this is confusing, you will have to read the definitions. In brief Free-Software gives you Freedoms, software that in Open-Source is usually also Free-Software. – ctrl-alt-delor Aug 2 '15 at 11:58
  • @richard My description of "Free-Software" is not wrong for the simple reason that I was not describing "Free-Software". nor did I equate it to "Open-Source-Software", which was not mentioned at all. Try again. No, actually, don't bother. – Nagora Aug 2 '15 at 14:04
  • This is a random periodic reminder to be nice: meta.stackexchange.com/help/be-nice – Martijn Aug 3 '15 at 13:50
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Yes

“Free software” means software that respects users' freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”. We sometimes call it “libre software” to show we do not mean it is gratis

you have:

  • The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

See this page for more information, it is written by same people that wrote GPL.

2

GPL software can be used anywhere, without restrictions. In fact, the FSF (maintainers of the GPL) have harsh words for licenses that try to restrict use of the software in any way.

GPL software can also be modified without restrictions, as long as the modified software is kept private. If you intend to use the GPL'd software strictly within the company, you can make whatever changes you want.

What the GPL controls is distribution of modified software. If you want to turn your modified software into a product, then you have to release the source. There are no other restrictions: you can even charge for the software, as long as the source is available at no additional charge to anyone who has bought a license. It does not have to be made available to anyone who hasn't bought a license.

They believe that once the software is used in a commercial environment, it is no longer considered free and falls under a difference licence (they didn't actually specify a difference licence, but was rather what would they believe would occur).

It is possible to do something like this, by releasing the software under two different licenses, but QGIS doesn't do that. This is called "dual licensing". Usually when a project does this, it releases the software under the GPL (or something very like it) for free, but people can pay to get an alternate license with different terms. Again, however, QGIS doesn't do this; there's only the GPL.

QGIS does seem to offer a "sponsorship program", as well as sales for commercial support, but these aren't alternate licenses, and they are never compulsory. You don't have to become a sponsor or buy commercial support to use the software, even if you are a corporation. Being a sponsor doesn't give you any additional rights, nor does it impose any additional restrictions; the same goes for buying commercial support.

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