So I'm wondering if I distribute my application (as an .iso file) with virtualbox portable http://www.vbox.me/ which is licensed under GPLv2, will that make my program also under the GPLv2 license? Or would this be considered two separate programs interacting at arms length?

also if I distribute a linux distro (iso file) that is under gpl with my program installed on it will that make my program GPL?

  • Linux distributions contain various software, some of which may be GPL-licensed and others which are under different licenses. It does not make sense to say that a distro is "under gpl." – Brandin Sep 11 '18 at 7:55

An ISO image is not fundamentally different from archive formats such as ZIP or TAR or from storage media such as CD-ROMs and thumb drives. This raises two separate questions:

  • Under what terms can you distribute the software components contained in the image?
  • Under what terms can you distribute the image as whole?

You need to comply with the licenses of all components that you distribute.

A storage medium/image/filesystem/archive can contain GPL'ed software and proprietary software side by side. E.g. in the GPLv2.0 this is called mere aggregation:

In addition, mere aggregation of another work not based on the Program with the Program (or with a work based on the Program) on a volume of a storage or distribution medium does not bring the other work under the scope of this License.

The GPLv3.0 explains this in more detail:

A compilation of a covered work with other separate and independent works, which are not by their nature extensions of the covered work, and which are not combined with it such as to form a larger program, in or on a volume of a storage or distribution medium, is called an “aggregate” if the compilation and its resulting copyright are not used to limit the access or legal rights of the compilation's users beyond what the individual works permit. Inclusion of a covered work in an aggregate does not cause this License to apply to the other parts of the aggregate.

So the existence of GPL'ed software on the image doesn't make the whole image subject to the GPL, but you must not deprive users from their rights under the GPL, e.g. to inspect, share, and modify the GPL components.

But what about the fact that the image was created by a GPL'ed program?

The copyright of a program does not extend to the data that it processes. As a simple example, I can use a GPL text editor such as GNU Emacs to write proprietary software.

Here, the license of an image creation tool does not extend to the images that it creates. The situation is different if it doesn't just create an image but also copies additional software into the image (in which case the same considerations as above apply) or if it e.g. wraps the image with something like a self-extracting EXE that makes the image runnable without separate software.

So absent any such cases, the image itself is not under any license and you only have to comply with all licenses of the software components within the image. This also means that you may impose your own licensing terms onto the resulting image, as long as these terms do not violate the licenses of the enclosed software.

As an example of images that include GPL software, consider the world's most popular Linux distro – Android. Most Android variants include substantial proprietary software and cannot be used freely. However, in compliance with the licenses of any GPLv2 and LGPLv2 components, my Android phone includes a written offer for the source code of those components, e.g. for the Linux kernel and various utilities.

P.S.: you state that Portable Virtualbox is GPLv2-licensed. According to their GitHub repo, they are using the rather unusual and non-free CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license instead (NC = noncommercial!), but can download the GPLv2-licensed Virtualbox software. However, this license does not change the conclusion of this answer, that the license of the image creation software does not directly affect the license of created images.

  • 1
    Note: vbox.me very specifically doesn't distribute Virtualbox with their program (it downloads and repackages it on your machine) so that they can safely not license their software under the GPL, and avoid other possible legal issues (e.g. trademark violation) that would happen if they distributed Virtualbox already integrated with the rest of their package. – 3D1T0R Sep 12 '18 at 17:27

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