Well, what I love about GPL is that any derivative work using GPL-licensed work also needs to be GPL licensed, which guarantees that derivative work is open-source, i.e. when requested the source of it must be available.

That's a great concept! But is it limited to software only?

Let's say that I have written a thesis which explains something which may have a lot usages in engineering, computing etc. Is it possible to license it something like GPL so that everything using my thesis must be open-sourced, for example, machines using it must have a GPL-like license, make their internal structure available and other machines using those machines either and so on; or software using my thesis must be GPL licensed?

In short, is it possible to apply the philosophy of GPL to non-software things and information?


Its answer is for non-programming, it maybe non-hardware too. Because, in short, I wonder whether I can use open-source philosophy (especially GPL) for non-programming purposes.

Well, my question has a broad domain but its answer is simply "yes" or "no". If it's yes you should give me a example, if it's no you should explain me why.

  • 2
    If someone merely refers to your thesis to make a machine, that is not a "derivative work". If I copy your thesis and then translate it to another language, for example, that is probably going to be considered a derivative work, so I need a license from you to do that.
    – Brandin
    Sep 16, 2015 at 14:36
  • possible duplicate of How do open-source concepts apply to hardware? Sep 24, 2015 at 8:04
  • Not actually, maybe the answers to that question are the same; but the questions are different. My question has a broader scope. Its answers should be related to non-hardware. Sep 24, 2015 at 9:13
  • You could patent your contraption, and license the patent under GPL-like conditions. don't know how far that would carry, though.
    – vonbrand
    Mar 11, 2016 at 1:18

3 Answers 3


...is it possible to apply the philosophy of GPL to non-software things...?

To answer this very narrowly, yes: the GPL itself can be applied to any creative work (writing, pictures, videos, etc.) that are eligible for copyright. However, your question appears to ask about the application of copyleft principles to works outside of the scope of copyright.

To review, the source of GPL's power is copyright. Copyright allows an author of a creative work to say, "No one can share copies or derivatives of this work." The GPL is a way for the author to say, "Okay, you can share copies and derivatives of this work as long as the follow these specific copyleft terms..." If you didn't have the underlying restrictions of copyright, the GPL couldn't demand copyleft terms. Copyright is wall that disallows use; the GPL is a door in that wall that has very specific requirements.

In your specific example, you're talking about the mechanics of a system described in a paper, which are outside the scope of copyright. The text of the paper itself is eligible for copyright, but the ideas contained within it are not. (See the idea-expression divide and the U.S. case Baker v. Selden.) So, the real question here is: is there some fundamental legal right (similar to copyright) that could apply to (1) systems or (2) information in general?

For the first item, patents are a good fit: if you have patented the system described in your paper, then no one can use it without your permission. It is perfectly possible to grant patent licenses to people under sort-of copyleft-like terms. For example, "You can use my patent in your hardware design, but only if you make the schematics available to anyone who owns a copy of your hardware device, and allow them to use, share, and modify those schematics." Again, patent law is the wall here, and your specific licensing terms are the carefully-controlled door.

For information in general, there are typically no laws that restrict the free use of information that is not covered by copyright or patent (except sui generis database rights, in some jurisdictions outside of the U.S., which are sort of like copyright for large-scale non-creative collections of data). If there is no restriction, there can't be any copyleft-style license, because there is no protected right to license.


Technical ideas can not be copyrighted, so copyright is not a sufficient tool to make sure that your idea is only used in ways you want. But ideas can be patented. When your thesis has technical applications, then these applications might be patent-worthy.

When you get a patent, you could vouche to license this patent for free as long as the implementors follow the conditions you outlined.


What you're describing sounds a lot to me like the Creative Commons ShareAlike license. It's a non-software license designed to make a work freely redistributable and remixable, and forces all derivative works to be licensed under the same license.

Here is an excerpt from the summary of the Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License:

ShareAlike — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you must distribute your contributions under the same license as the original.

No additional restrictions — You may not apply legal terms or technological measures that legally restrict others from doing anything the license permits.

So the general idea of a Creative Commons ShareAlike license is that anyone can redistribute the work, anyone can change the work, and any changed versions or derivatives of the work must also allow all these freedoms.

Perhaps this is close to what you were going for?

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    But is a machine which uses ideas explained in a paper a derived work of that paper? As far as I know, this is not covered by copyright. This is covered by patent right, which is a completely different beast than what copyright licenses like the CC licenses cover.
    – Philipp
    Sep 16, 2015 at 13:09
  • No, creative commons is not a suitable at all. CC is a copyright license, but what he needs is a Patent license. Sep 21, 2015 at 0:47
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    @AbhiBeckert He was asking for a non-software equivalent to GPL, which I think CC satisfies pretty well. The other answers (and the first comment on my answer) already address why neither CC nor GPL will protect a product or process, which a patent is mores suitable for. A CC license protects his thesis text itself though without restricting freedoms, so I still think it is a good choice for the copyright piece of the puzzle. Sep 21, 2015 at 0:52
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    @MaximillianLaumeister he wants people who build a machine incorporating his ideas to be forced to share the design for their own machines in the same way. That can only be done with patents, it cannot be done with copyright and cannot be done with CC or GPL. I'm not commenting on the other answers, I'm commenting on your answer. I suggest you either edit your answer to mention this issue or else delete it. Sep 21, 2015 at 0:58

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