According to Richard Stallman:

Likewise, in 2006 we learned through the GPL version 3 commenting process that downloading binaries of GPL-covered programs with BitTorrent violated GPL version 2, because with BitTorrent every downloader also redistributes. I included terms in GPL version 3 to explicitly permit this, thus authorizing BitTorrent distribution of binaries for all programs released under "GNU GPL version 2 or any later version".

The Linux kernel is licensed under GPLv2 only, and is distributed in every Linux ISO that is torrented. Does that mean that everyone who has ever distributed these ISOs has "permanently los[t] the license to distribute that program" according to the same article?

I suspect that this might be covered under GPLv2 3(c):

Accompany it with the information you received as to the offer to distribute corresponding source code. (This alternative is allowed only for noncommercial distribution and only if you received the program in object code or executable form with such an offer, in accord with Subsection b above.)

Since ISOs contain information about how to get the source code, it would seem torrenters are saved, but I can't be sure.

  • 3
    This GPLv3 comment may have the answer, but I haven't inspected it closely nor figured out how it might apply to GNU/Linux ISOs specifically.
    – apsillers
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 13:53
  • An ISO is not by itself a binary (or “object code” in GPL parlance). It is a container format similar to ZIP or TAR. While I think that RMS' criticism of distribution of individual GPL-covered binaries via p2p networks is correct, it doesn't necessarily apply to Linux ISOs.
    – amon
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 8:02

2 Answers 2


Per this article published while the GPL 3.0 was drafted (and mentioned by apsilers):

We have made two changes that recognize and facilitate distribution of covered works in object code form using BitTorrent or similar peer-to-peer methods. First, under new subsection 6e, if a licensee conveys such a work using peer-to-peer transmission, that licensee is in compliance with section 6 so long as the licensee knows, and informs other peers where, the object code and its Corresponding Source are publicly available at no charge under subsection 6d. The Corresponding Source therefore need not be provided through the peer-to-peer system that was used for providing the binary. Second, we have revised section 9 to make clear that ancillary propagation of a covered work that occurs as part of the process of peer-to-peer file transmission does not require acceptance, just as mere receipt and execution of the Program does not require acceptance. Such ancillary propagation is permitted without limitation or further obligation.

Based on this, section 6e of the GPL 3.0 is now quite explicit about peer-to-peer transmissions:

e) Convey the object code using peer-to-peer transmission, provided you inform other peers where the object code and Corresponding Source of the work are being offered to the general public at no charge under subsection 6d.

But then what about the GPL 2.0 especially in the light of the comment you made?

First, I think this is rather artificial to treat a peer-to-peer redistribution any differently than a regular distribution by download. In particular, if I host download at a hoster, I would not consider the hoster to be responsible for the redistribution, nor any of the many internet and network segments providers where the bits did transit. As an analogy, I would not consider the peers and seeders participating in a p2p transmission as responsible for the redistribution of these bits proper. They are in both case just instrumental IMHO.

So who would be responsible for the redistribution and eventually responsible to provide eventually the corresponding sources? Whoever initially created the torrent, e.g. the first seed would the redistributing party IMHO and should therefore ensure that the corresponding source code is available in one of the many ways that the GPL 2.0 supports, such as at the end of Section 3 of the GPl 2.0:

If distribution of executable or object code is made by offering access to copy from a designated place, then offering equivalent access to copy the source code from the same place counts as distribution of the source code, even though third parties are not compelled to copy the source along with the object code.

... which could be in the form of another torrent for source code, or any suitable mechanism.

And the torrent should also contain instructions and pointers on how to obtain the corresponding sources either directly in the main ISO or as an additional README.

And as you pointed out, most ISOs contain information about how to get the source code and therefore regardless of how they were provisioned they would be compliant be it through a p2p or http download.


NO for a normal Linux distribution. Of course you may create a customized Linux ISO with your proprietary binaries and such cannot be distributed, but makes no difference if by Bittorrent or carrying CDs on the back of a camel.

Even if not part of the distributed image, for usual distributions all source code under GPL is available for download. GPL does not require to bundle the source code with binaries, or distribute the source code only, while this is often done for convenience reasons.

The license only requires to provide the offer to share the source code, valid for three years. It is enough to include the link or address where the source code could be obtained, by everyone who wants. All usual distributions do have such links.

  • 1
    "It is actually enough to include the link ... where the source code could be obtained" fine, except it's not enough to do that. GPLv3 s6d says that will suffice, but GPLv2 s3 lacks comparable language - hence the premise of the entire question.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 9:02
  • It was never a requirement to distribute the source code in a single bundle with binaries. It says "b) Accompany it with a written offer, valid for at least three years, to give any third party, for a charge no more than your cost of physically performing source distribution, a complete machine-readable copy of the corresponding source code"
    – x64
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 9:04
  • 2
    Absolutely, but when you distribute a binary with BitTorrent, there may well be no such written offer included. The question is, if there isn't, what's the legal position? I don't think anyone's saying that it's impossible to correctly distribute GPLv2 software via BitTorrent; the question is whether incorrect distribution can arise. A blanket "no" is not, to my mind, a defensible answer.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 9:29
  • Strange things are going on ...
    – x64
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 18:39

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