This is somewhat inspired by this: Does a GPL image “infect” my blog post? and the Google Material Design Icons. The latter is a very well known project.

The first question deals with a picture licensed under the GPL. The material design icons hosts a series of icons licensed under the Apache 2.0 license - this was changed a couple weeks ago. It was formerly CC BY.

An image can in no way have a true "Source" or "Object" form, so it feels somewhat awkward. Images just aren't code, which is what the aforementioned licenses primarily cover.

I do have a couple arguments which I've encountered, especially when considering the Material Design Icons:


  • It's a more familiar license for developers
  • It allows a project to host code related to the project


  • It's not a media focused license
  • The terms used may not properly apply to media
  • It's not a familiar license for media artists

Am I missing something?

Why is it that so many projects use software licenses for media? What are the arguments for doing so, especially when there are families of dedicated licenses, such as those by Creative Commons?

Note that I'm in no way questioning the licensing decision made by Google, and I don't want anyone to start anything as a result of this post. Decisions made by people are their own, and should be respected.

  • Did you gather the for and against arguments from any discussion they had about the relicensing? Aug 31, 2016 at 22:04
  • @MichaelSchumacher Yes I did. I can put up a link if people would like (I kind of resisted that initially).
    – Zizouz212
    Aug 31, 2016 at 22:04
  • Well, right now the question reads like you came up with these arguments on your own - I do assume you meant to write "encountered" instead of "countered", though. Aug 31, 2016 at 22:18
  • @MichaelSchumacher Oh oops. I'll fix that :)
    – Zizouz212
    Aug 31, 2016 at 22:27
  • 1
    One slight nitpick: an image could have a source form depending on how it was made - eg. a layered PSD vs a flattened PNG or JPEG
    – Tim Malone
    Aug 31, 2016 at 23:01

1 Answer 1


Use of a software license for media should be discouraged in general but it really depends on how the software license is written. Considerations about specific licenses follow.


Section 0 of the GNU GPL 3.0 license contains a definition of "The Program":

"The Program" refers to any copyrightable work licensed under this License.

and Section 1 defines the "source code":

The "source code" for a work means the preferred form of the work for making modifications to it.

This explains why the GNU FAQ clearly states that the license can be used for something other than software:

Can I use the GPL for something other than software?

You can apply the GPL to any kind of work, as long as it is clear what constitutes the “source code” for the work. The GPL defines this as the preferred form of the work for making changes in it.

In the case of an SVG image, or a PNG image having vectorial source, this license choice can make a lot of sense.


What I said for the GPL is even truer for the Apache 2.0 license. Indeed, it contains the following definitions:

"Source" form shall mean the preferred form for making modifications, including but not limited to software source code, documentation source, and configuration files.

"Object" form shall mean any form resulting from mechanical transformation or translation of a Source form, including but not limited to compiled object code, generated documentation, and conversions to other media types.

"Work" shall mean the work of authorship, whether in Source or Object form, made available under the License, as indicated by a copyright notice that is included in or attached to the work (an example is provided in the Appendix below).

Therefore the Apache license is specifically designed to be applicable beyond software (other media types are even mentioned) whereas the choice of terms throughout the preamble and the rest of the GPL clearly demonstrates that the license was designed for software even though it can still be applied to some other works.


On the contrary, the MIT license defines the "Software" as:

a copy of this software and associated documentation files

Thus the MIT license would lose its meaning completely in case it was applied to media which isn't documentation.


The BSD licenses (2 and 3-clause) do not contain any definitions but mention "source code", "binary form" and "THIS SOFTWARE". Thus, similarly to the MIT license, it should not be used for anything else than software.

Final consideration

Finally if a software contains media, it makes sense to license the whole software, including media, under a software license, but in this case authors would be well advised to dual license the media alone under a Creative Commons license.

  • 1
    What about Apache? I know I asked about software licenses in general, but most of the time, if I do see media licensed with a software license, it's either Apache or GPL for some reason.
    – Zizouz212
    Sep 1, 2016 at 16:30
  • 1
    I edited with more info. Your observation might be explained by the fact that these are two licenses that can indeed by applied to media without problem.
    – Zimm i48
    Sep 2, 2016 at 9:19
  • 1
    In the case of the Material Design icons, the source code for the icons actually exist. Real, text, source code: github.com/google/material-design-icons/tree/master/…
    – slebetman
    Sep 5, 2016 at 7:12

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