A development package I'd like to use is provided as Linux binaries for a single platform. I'd like to build and run it on another platform.

The manual, available on the developer's site but not included in the package, contains the following text (product/project names redacted):

Warranty and Copying
* This document is part of [shortname]:
* [longname]
* [project url]
*    [shortname] is free software: you can redistribute it and/or modify
*    it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by
*    the Free Software Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or
*    (at your option) any later version.
*    [shortname] is distributed in the hope that it will be useful,
*    but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of
*    GNU General Public License for more details.
*    You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License
*    along with [shortname].  If not, see <http://www.gnu.org/licenses/>.

This manual is slightly older than the current binary package. The developer now says “As the copyright holder, I can do what I want with my copy and updates … including changing the license … The current published binary version is not GPL”.

Is there anything I can do to suggest to the developer that their approach is not appropriate?

  • Your question title is a little bit misleading because, if we read only the title, the answer is "yes, obviously", but as soon as we read the question the answer becomes "no".
    – Zimm i48
    Aug 17, 2016 at 16:52

4 Answers 4


Since you mention in comments that program link to several other GPL libraries (some of which are FSF), then the resulting binary must be released as GPL too (or stop linking to those binaries, or stop being distributed at all).

Because FSFs work is involved, it is probably best you contact them so they can take the most diplomatic approach to resolve the issue.


The author is correct. As the copyright holder, he is not bound by the GPL and can do whatever he wishes with his "intellectual property". However, FLOSS licenses are irrevocable, so if he has released past versions of the software and its source under the GPL, you can build them from source and distribute them under the GPL.

You can of course contact him and tell him that he's inhibiting the cause of FLOSS by not releasing newer versions under the GPL, but that's unlikely to change anything. It would be better to request that he update the manual to indicate that the software is no longer under the GPL (and to document any changes he has made in newer versions) but that past versions were.

  • 2
    "FLOSS licenses are irrevocable, so if he has released past versions of the software and its source under the GPL, you can build them from source and distribute them under the GPL": you can indeed build from a past version if you can find one. But note that if you have no way of finding a binary nor the source of a past version, then even this option is doomed as the license was only applicable between the author and recipients at that time.
    – Zimm i48
    Aug 17, 2016 at 16:50
  • 1
    @Zimmi48 If the package happens to be on GitHub, one could fork and revert to an appropriate commit
    – Tim Malone
    Aug 19, 2016 at 14:30

The first thing that is suspicious to me is that, according to the GPL v3, the distribution is required to contain the text of the license. Section 6 covers distribution of binary packages, and refers the reader to Sections 4 and 5 for additional requirements. Section 4 requires notices regarding the license and terms be provided.

The difference in terms between the license information provided in the binary download and the documentation should be corrected. I would suspect that the license information distributed with the binary is more correct. If no license was distributed with the binary, then that is also a concern since there's no information about how you can use what you've just obtained.

If the author is indeed the only copyright holder, then he is correct that he can choose to change the license at any point in time. However, a change would not be retroactive. If you can find someone who has a version of this package that was released under the GPL, they can redistribute under the terms of the GPL to you.

  • He claims to be the sole copyright holder, but the binary links to several GPL (not LGPL) libraries, including a couple (c) FSF. There isn't a readily-available copy of the last GPL source, but there's one on the web that's served as webpages in some kind of source publishing system. It doesn't include makefiles or config.
    – scruss
    Aug 16, 2016 at 22:21
  • 3
    @scruss Perhaps you should reach out to those other authors. If the library is not compliant with the GPL, then the authors and copyright holders of the other libraries can take action. Aug 19, 2016 at 13:09

The GPL, like any license, derives it's power from the copyright, which is why rights holders issue licenses (though the GPL grants additional rights of distribution). If the author of the work is the sole contributor and all libraries have permissive enough licenses, then he can issue new versions under a different license, but cannot withdraw any existing version and the license on that.

So if you have a binary from the GPL releases, then the GPL must be honoured to release the code. If you have a more recent binary that was not issued as GPL then that's out.

You have, however, also stated in comments to other answers, that the binary is compiled with modules or uses libraries which are only released as GPL as well and not dual released as LGPL (or multi-licensed with other permissive licenses). If that is the case then you should report this to the FSF and any other project affected.

On a side note, every time I've queried someone over a project with a GPL vs. whichever license they prefer clashing it's pretty much always been a case of not realising that module X was licensed that way and fixed pretty quickly. Usually by finding alternative libraries and sticking with their preferred license. Mind you, all those cases involved projects where the code was released and done so under a permissive license like MIT, 3-clause BSD or Apache 2.0 (and others). You may find the psychology of those who release binaries only to be a little different, treating their projects more like personal fiefdoms, but it will vary entirely from case to case.

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