Reading this question caused me to wonder: Is it even possible to keep a GPL-licensed software internal to one company?

Am I correct in thinking that any employee who has access to it, would be free to distribute it, either during his employment or after leaving? And also, that GPL specifically forbids stopping such distribution by NDAs and similar means?

So in real world, if one wanted to keep such GPL software internal, access to it would have to be restricted to just a few individuals for have high motivation to stay loyal to the company?


2 Answers 2


The employees are the company and as such, having access to the GPL code does not constitute distribution.

If the Software is distributed externally, even to another company of the same group (different entity even if same parents) the GPL counts.

  • 1
    @memtum, "The employees are the company" Legally, this is not true. A company is not the same as its employees. Employees work on behalf of their employer, which is meaningfully different from being the same entity as their employer.
    – user3451
    Jan 16, 2016 at 20:08
  • 2
    @sampablokuper, as long as they work on company directed tasks, they are the company. Sure, if the company allows them to take a copy home for personal or hobby use, in that use they are different entities,
    – vonbrand
    Jan 16, 2016 at 22:45
  • 2
    vonbrand interpreted me rightly. This is meant from the point of view of the GPL. A freelancer also doing tasks for the company is "the company" in that sense, even if he's not an employee. That the freelancer gets in contact with the GPL software during the course of his work, does not constitute distribution
    – mementum
    Jan 17, 2016 at 1:11

The GPL parts stay GPL, your modification stay yours. You certainly can restrict access to said modifications at will, as copyright (used the "standard" way) allows. I.e., in the case mentioned, access to the modifications under NDA, extra restrictions, the whole mile you'd go for company strategic secrets if warranted.

GPL kicks in if/when the result is distributed, then full source has to be provided. As long as it stays in-house, GPL code is yours to do as you like.

  • Hmm, to my reading GPLv3, it says source must be provided under the GPL license whenever you convey the software to anyone. And "to convey" is defined as "To “convey” a work means any kind of propagation that enables other parties to make or receive copies." And it seems to me that even internal copying meets that definition?
    – jpa
    Jan 15, 2016 at 14:55
  • 1
    @jpa "internal use" is the same party
    – vonbrand
    Jan 15, 2016 at 15:44
  • 1
    @jpa Not necessarily. If, for example, GPL was placed on a network account system (similar to schools, and large-scale companies), the source code doesn't have to be distributed. This is because the software stays on the same system - and it's not leaving the realm of the people who first had it (the school or the company)
    – Zizouz212
    Jan 15, 2016 at 23:46
  • @Zizouz212, but "remote use" is not "getting a copy for my own use". Also see the AGPL (Affero General Public License).
    – vonbrand
    Jan 15, 2016 at 23:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.