I am a contributor to a very old project presently in violation of the GPL. Our project is a plugin for a closed-source program, but the GPL does not permit this kind of linking. The project should have been licensed under the LGPL instead, but the original authors were not aware of this.

Relicensing is already covered in another question, so we will ignore that here.

There are only about 30 contributors to the project, but it's almost ten years old at this point. Many have moved on to other projects.

The contributors clearly intended for their work to be used with the closed-source program in question. They did not know the GPL forbade it. It is exceedingly unlikely that one of them will take legal action against the project.

If the project continues despite the GPL violation, what is our legal exposure to third parties? Can the FSF or any other group sue us?


If the project does not create and distribute a combined work of the plugin and the closed source host, then I see no realistic liability. This is because you aren't violating the GPL. A violation occurs when someone combines the GPL library with the closed source component and then distributes the result. You haven't done that, so you haven't violated anything. Someone who uses your plugin in the privacy of their home or business, but doesn't redistribute it, doesn't violate the GPL, either.

Only the copyright holders of your project have a course of action if someone does combine the works and distribute them. So if all of you agree that it was your intent to permit this use, then none of you will bother users. If none of you bother users, including anyone who creates and distributes a combination, there is no one to sue anyone else.

A very faint liability might come into play if, in fact, some copyright holder did sue some third party for violating the license, and the third-party tried to come up with a counter-suite that you all somehow led him or her astray. I don't believe it; at worse, the fact that you all published this component looks to me like estoppel against any attempt by any of you to enforce the license.

Remember, the GPL is a license that you, the copyright holder, grant. You own the rights. You are the only people who can bother anyone else for violating the terms of the license. If you choose (like Linux) to take a different view of plugins and linkage, you can do that.

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    This is great. I'm going to ask another question based on this answer. Please stand by. – Daniel Seagraves Aug 10 '15 at 19:42
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    FWIW, the Linux license explicitly state that closed source code (including device drivers) may execute under the kernel. Without this explicit permission users and distributors (distro maintainers, DVD publishers etc.) may not assume it's OK to distribute closed source code with the OS. – slebetman Aug 11 '15 at 3:27

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