The GPL says that if you use program A, you agree that if you make a program B that relies on program A, program B must be GPL (otherwise, you violate the GPL and therefore lose the right to use program A.)

My question is, how much does program B need to rely on program A for this to take effect. For example, if program A is linux, and program B is a program running on linux, program B does not need to be open source.

On the other hand, if program A is a library, and program B imports it, I think its generally agreed upon that that means program B needs to be GPL.

Where is the line though? One interesting edge case is WordPress themes. A WordPress theme consists of php and css files. Most of the theme is usable without WordPress, but some key functions require interloping with WordPress (fetching content).

What is the line for when GPL requires something to else to be GPL.

  • Re Wordpress themes, it is down to legal interpretation, but the official Wordpress interpretation is that themes are derivative. In particular, they call a lot of Wordpress functions and would be quite useless without it. However, Wordpress do acknowledge that it is possible to consider the CSS (and images etc.) as non-derivative.
    – Tim Malone
    Apr 28, 2016 at 10:22

1 Answer 1


The big problem with telling you where the line is, is that nobody really knows. The remedies for licence violations are legal ones, so the terms of a licence mean what a court says they do - and I am not aware of any legal authority to date laying out a clear set of rules for when one work is a derivative of another.

Part of the problem is that copyleft is fairly new. Copying was first restricted in 1662, by restrictions on presses introduced by the Licensing of the Press Act, and a formal copyright system first came into being under the Statute of Anne in 1710. So we've had about three hundred years of precedent (both binding and advisory), legislative clarification, harmonisation, international treaties, and so on, to the point where, although the balance of power between creator, publisher and consumer isn't entirely a happy one, it is fairly well-understood.

But the GPL was first published in 1989. So although we have three hundred years of courts clarifying how to use copyright to stop people copying, we have less than a tenth of that history of the courts clarifying how to use copyright to help people copy, provided that they share likewise.

One of the areas where the water is still very murky is a bright-line test for a work being derivative of another, and it is the engagement of derivation that enables the control of a subsequent work via copyright, thus in turn engaging the GPL. Until courts and legislatures start to lay down bright-line tests, or failing that, until precedent starts to accrete around the matter, noone really knows.

If you take someone else's code, and make changes to it, provided those changes aren't de minimis, I don't know anyone who would argue that the result isn't a derivative work. I think, as you say, that it is generally agreed that binary linking and shared address space constitute derivation, but this is not universally agreed. As apsillers kindly points out, "mere aggregation" is thought by nearly no-one to involve the creation of a derivative work. The kind of interaction you ask about - Wordpress themes - are even less clear-cut, and I don't understand Wordpress well enough to begin to know where to put it on that sliding scale. But the thrust of my answer is that since there is no binding agreement on the stops and data points on that scale, it would be pointless to do so. Sorry.

  • GPL doesn't "help copying", it uses copyright law to restrict copying in non-standard ways. This in turn gives rise to people not related directly to the author modifying code without first comming to an agreement. There lies the problem.
    – vonbrand
    Apr 3, 2016 at 12:29
  • By placing restrictions on the extent to which licensees can themselves restrict copying going forward, the GPL assists copying. And I don't agree that it gives rise to third-parties modifying code "without first comming to an agreement", since the licence - to which third-parties have agreed - is placed on it by the author. I see this question solely as one about the extent to which works based on another are derivative of that other, and that is a simple - though I believe currently unresolved - question of copyright law. It is equally unresolved of, say, the Windows codebase.
    – MadHatter
    Apr 3, 2016 at 20:08

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