I've just found out that in some countries in Europe, one can't use public domain libraries in commercial software (e.g. Germany).

Parts of the Linux libraries come under public domain (e.g. files from glib-2.0). Does this mean that all commercial devices using Linux should not be on the market?

I guess the same question goes for WTFPL and The Unlicense.

One of the sources: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20170612/09194237572/multiple-german-courts-rule-photos-public-domain-works-are-not-public-domain.shtml

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    Do you have a link, or more specific information regarding that limitation on public domain libraries? That might help provide context and get you a better answer.
    – freginold
    Aug 25, 2017 at 10:55
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    The linked source is about something different, no? It’s about publishing photographs of a work in the public domain. Note that the case doesn’t question that the work is in the public domain, which means that the law recognizes the concept (i.e., Gemeinfreiheit in German, which is similar but not identical to public domain).
    – unor
    Aug 25, 2017 at 16:45

3 Answers 3


In the provided link, there are two statements regarding copyright:

  • A derived work of a work in the public domain is itself not in the public domain.
  • A display of public domain artwork is itself protected by intellectual property rights.

The second statement is not relevant to software.
The first statement is actually not that special and is a prerequisite if you want copyright protection on your code while using some public domain code.


You are mistakenly interpreting the German Law. What it does prohibit is when a work is in public domain (such as a sculpture or painting) but you take a picture of it, you may not use the picture, since (very stupidly, but nonetheless) the court determined, that if you take a picture of a public domain work, the supposed creative process of taking the picture is enough to give all ownership of the photo to the photographer. It also states, that when an art piece is in the museum, by it's mere display there, the photographs taken of them are no longer in public domain.

HOWEVER, there is nothing about software in the link you provided. Even if you tried to apply the German Court Interpretation to Software (it should be noted, that likely, in software, a new interpretation should be required), then still public domain code COULD be used in commercial works - however, if you added one line of code to the public domain code, nobody would be able to use the modified (even slightly) code. Again, this is speculation, since I don't know of any such Court decisions. Regardless, you can use public domain work in commercial projects. Beside, software is usually regulated by some international copyright deals, which could possibly ensure that public domain can of course be incorporated.


*DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer, much less a German lawyer, and this does not constitute professional legal advice. If in doubt, please refer to licensed law professionals.

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    "but you take a picture of it, you may not use the picture (...) all ownership of the photo to the photographer" - well, if you take the picture, you are the photographer. Aug 29, 2017 at 15:02

My understanding is that in Germany all original creations are copyrighted. Therefore the public domain and other similar licenses are not recognized as they don't contain this information. Legal advice would be recommended.

  • It would be really nice if the minuses would come with an explanation.
    – ossx
    Sep 1, 2017 at 7:09

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