I'm new to licensing and want to clarify something. Do licenses (such as Apache, MIT, GNU General Public etc.) apply to the source code or the (compiled) program?

I thought it applied to the source code, but after reading the Wikipedia article about the GPL I am a little unsure. They speak of "software" and to me the source code itself isn't software.

  • 1
    Short answer: most of the longer licenses apply to both. Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 3:47
  • Source code is most definitely software. Some software doesn't even need compiling to run :) I would say it probably applies to both, and as @curiousdannii implied, the longer licenses explicitly mention their application to both - eg the GPL defines source code as being the "preferred format" for editing the software.
    – Tim Malone
    Commented Jun 5, 2016 at 21:13

1 Answer 1


As far as copyright law is concerned, source code and object code (i.e. the compiled program) are equivalent. So even if a license talks about one and not the other, or only mentions "software", the same protections apply to both.

Often the license will mention both. For example, GPL has sections defining "source code" and "object code", because one of its conditions is that if you distribute "object code" you must also provide "source code" - a mechanism that's an integral part of copyleft.

The conclusion that source code and object code are equivalent is not that obvious. In fact object code was once not afforded copyright protection1, but cases such as Apple Computer, Inc. v. Franklin Computer Corp. lead to the situation today.

1: Computer Copyright Law: An Emerging Form of Protection for Object Code Software After Apple v. Franklin, 5 Computer L.J. 233 (1984) by Anderson L. Baldy III

While source code programs 10 have consistently been accorded copyright protection, object code programs 1 have only recently been deemed copyrightable. 12 Further, the exact boundaries of the protection granted to object code programs as an alternate or supplement to trade secret protection 13 have not been delineated by the federal judiciary. 14 The recent decision in Apple Computer, Inc. v. Franklin Computer Corp.15 merely provides that some object code is copyrightable subject matter regardless of its embodiment medium, in that case Read Only Memory (ROM) chips. Thus, Apple stands for the proposition that the embodiment of object code in a ROM does not preclude copyright protection, but does not provide guidelines for determining what constitutes a copyrightable ROM-embedded program.

  • Interesting answer! One thing to point out - copyleft is not particularly about the source code requirement but rather the requirement to "share-alike": "an arrangement whereby software or artistic work may be used, modified, and distributed freely on condition that anything derived from it is bound by the same conditions." (from Google define)
    – Tim Malone
    Commented Jun 6, 2016 at 19:30

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