So I used a piece of software which claims to be open source and is licensed under "GPL for research purposes only".

As far as I know, GPL 2 and 3 are not themselves free, in sense that you can't change them and still call them GPL.

Also, as far as I remember, they don't allow developers to restrict the rights granted by them. Cases such as GPL, GPL or GPL + exceptions, or GPL or another license are possible, but GPL with some rights is removed is not allowed.

Given the above, is the idea of licensing code under "GPL for research purposes only" self-contradictory?

UPDATE: Do to some website restructuring, I could not find the original page where the research purposes only quote comes from. However, the program itself has a license.txt with GPLv3 in it, and following additional notes appended at the end or the regular GPLv3 text:

<TheProject> is for research purposes only.  
<TheProject> CAN NOT be used for commercial purposes.
<TheProject> SHOULD NOT be used for medical purposes.  
The authors  WILL NOT be responsible for using <TheProject> in medical conditions.
  • 8
    In what context was the "GPL for research purposes only" statement made? Perhaps they simply meant it is not ready for actual customer use, hence "for research purposes only." Did you look at the license of the software and see if the license there is really the GPL v2 or v3, verbatim?
    – Brandin
    Sep 25, 2018 at 9:47
  • 2
    Since there are already 3 licenses known as "GPL", with explicit acknowledgement of possible future versions, you can no longer refer to just "GPL" as if it is a specific license.
    – MSalters
    Sep 25, 2018 at 10:29
  • 8
    Could you please link to this software? The only mention of this phrase on the whole internet excluding the Stack Exchange network is from an old USENIX article.
    – pipe
    Sep 25, 2018 at 11:10
  • 3
    In the United States, you can freely ignore this purported restriction. US law does not provide a way for a copyright holder to use a copyright license to restrict use. This is as unenforceable (under US law) as a book that comes with a "license page" that says you may not read the book on Wednesdays. See 17 USC 106 which lists the things a copyright holder can give restricted rights to under a license and notice that the mere use of the work is not one of those things. Sep 26, 2018 at 9:20
  • 2
    @Trilarion No, it doesn't. It limits sharing and adapting the work to only non-commercial purposes. It doesn't attempt to limit the ordinary use of the work. Your right to use something licensed under the CC-NC is the same as your right to use something that has no license such as a book that you purchased. (And this matches with common sense. By offering you a license you are free to accept or reject, I can't possibly take something away from you that you previously had.) Sep 26, 2018 at 17:27

11 Answers 11


Basically yes to everything you say, although politically it may get complicated. Section 10 of the GPL v3 forbids any further restrictions your rights under the license:

You may not impose any further restrictions on the exercise of the rights granted or affirmed under this License.

"For research purposes only" is exactly the sort of term this is targeting. In theory, if a program is claimed to be distributed under the GPL v3 and does contain an additional restriction you can remove that restriction via the wording in Section 7:

If the Program as you received it, or any part of it, contains a notice stating that it is governed by this License along with a term that is a further restriction, you may remove that term.

So therefore you could try and distribute the code under the GPL without any further restrictions.

Looking at the specific terms you've mentioned:

<TheProject> is for research purposes only.
<TheProject> CAN NOT be used for commercial purposes.

These are both attempts to put additional restrictions on a piece of GPL licensed software. Section 7 means I can remove them, so they have no effect.

SHOULD NOT be used for medical purposes.

This is fine. I'm allowed to give any kind of hint I like about code, so long as it isn't an attempt to actually restrict people's rights.

The authors WILL NOT be responsible for using in medical conditions.

And again, this is fine - but almost certainly redundant given the much more extensive wordings in Section 15 and 16 of the GPL.

  • 9
    "<TheProject> cannot be used for commercial purposes" is a restriction, but "<TheProject> is for research purposes only" is not really a restriction. For example "Trix are (only) for kids" is not literally a prohibition; you would need to say something more specific like "You may only eat this cereal if you are a person and you are a kid" or "Rabbits may not eat Trix." Both of those are clear restrictions on who may eat Trix.
    – Brandin
    Sep 26, 2018 at 8:34
  • 6
    I think you have misread clause 10: “You” is a defined term that references the licensee not the licensor. In other words, the person receiving the software cannot distribute it onward with further restrictions imposed. You are however correct that under clause 7 licensees are permitted to remove such additional terms, and this is the mechanism by which the GPL’s authors intend to prevent (or at least, nullify) licensors from adding terms of the sort at issue here. HOWEVER, if an additional term expressly contradicts that part of clause 7, it could indeed stand... probably not the case here
    – eggyal
    Sep 27, 2018 at 1:25

Searching for the term "GPL for research purposes only" shows a number of hits that shed a somewhat different light on the matter.

It seems that there is quite a bit of GPL'ed software in the academic medical world. Such software is generally not approved for regular medical use by the regulating agencies. Even if it was, any modification would render the regulatory approval invalid.

The GPL may grant you specific rights, including the right to use the software for medical purposes, but this grant cannot overrule regulatory obligations or other laws. The grant originates in, and is restricted to copyright law.

Note that you can replace "medical" with "aviation" or similar fields.

  • 3
    @pipe: Well, Philip Kendall has a valid point there - it's useless within the license itself. That's not relevant to the regulary agency though - they are looking for statements of intended use, and the GPL has no contradictionary statements.
    – MSalters
    Sep 25, 2018 at 11:23
  • 11
    @Brandin: I work (part-time) for a company that sells software in the medical field. Some of it is certified for use in critical case (up to Intensive Care), some of it is not. We have to be very careful to label each product with the intended use. From that background it's clear where the comment comes from. It literally means "Despite what the GPL just told you, the law states that you cannot use this software for all purposes, as we haven't certified it".
    – MSalters
    Sep 25, 2018 at 18:18
  • 4
    @Barmar So far there's nothing to indicate that anyone put it in the license.
    – pipe
    Sep 26, 2018 at 0:33
  • 5
    What other laws or regulations say about a permitted use is not really relevant. For example, a Web server licensed under the GPL must allow you to use that software to create a gambling Web site, even if the local laws would prohibit that. The license says it's OK, but the law otherwise. Similarly, a statement like "foo is (only) for bar" is not a restriction. For example "PHP is only for creating dynamic web pages" is just an explanation of its intended use. It does not actually mean "you may not use PHP for a purpose other than creating dynamic web pages."
    – Brandin
    Sep 26, 2018 at 8:43
  • 9
    @Brandin: You're clearly not familiar with medical regulations. The law is not just about "permitted use", it extends to claims regarding intended use. Those regulations explicitly ban you from claiming that an uncertified product may be used for medical purposes. Yet the GPL, by claiming that the software may be used for all purposes, is in direct violation of that law. It's not what the GPL allows, it's what the GPL states that violates the law.
    – MSalters
    Sep 26, 2018 at 8:56

You are reading the user manual.

You are not reading copyright licence terms.

The technical name in United States law for what you are reading is directions for use. Almost all (there are exemptions) medical drugs and devices must come with them. You have probably seen them on medications that you have bought. Medical software is no exception. It counts as a medical device and must have them too. (It is known as software as a medical device, SaMD.)

The mandate for directions for use comes from statute, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act 1938, which prohibits:

(a) The introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of any food, drug, device, tobacco product, or cosmetic that is adulterated or misbranded.
(b) The adulteration or misbranding of any food, drug, device, tobacco product, or cosmetic in interstate commerce.
(c) The receipt in interstate commerce of any food, drug, device, tobacco product, or cosmetic that is adulterated or misbranded, and the delivery or proffered delivery thereof for pay or otherwise.

21 USC 331

where misbranding is then defined in part as:

A drug or device shall be deemed to be misbranded—
[…] (f) […] Unless its labeling bears (1) adequate directions for use; […]

21 USC 352

and adequate directions for use is defined by Federal regulation:

Adequate directions for use means directions under which the layman can use a device safely and for the purposes for which it is intended. Section 801.4 defines intended use.

21 CFR 1.801.5

I leave you to read 21 CFR 1.801.4 for the details of intended use, as it is really too long for this answer.

So a layman software engineer's simplest way of thinking about this is (crudely, and not quite accurately) that this is a legally-required user manual, directing how the software should be used and giving the intended use according to its manufacturer. It is not a copyright licence term. It exists because of a completely different statute to copyright law. More than one law applies to this software.

Research use only (RUO) is also a technical term of the USFDA. From 21 CFR 1.809.10 one can take an approximate definition of RUO as being something that is in a "laboratory research phase of development, and not represented as an effective […] product".

Now whether you obey the directions for use when you have received a copy of the software is a completely different matter, not covered by the aforementioned statute and regulations. They tell the manufacturer what xe must provide with the software to you. If you manufacture, package, distribute, or sell the software in the U.S., then you must do that too. (Per 21 USC 333 it is fines per violation up to USD1,000,000 if you do not.) It's not a copyright term, and a copyright licence does not override it. It's the law for medical devices, including medical softwares.

(At one point, draft guidance from the FDA was that if you do not obey the directions for use on RUO devices, the manufacturer is obliged to stop supplying it to you. But again, this is a rule for the manufacturer rather than for you the recipient.)

Legal restrictions on medical softwares are not specific to the United States; and legal restrictions on softwares are not specific to medicine. In E.U. law, for example, the analogous name for U.S. intended use is intended purpose and the regulations apply to the people who design, manufacture, label, assemble, package, process, or fully refurbish medical devices (Council Directive 93/42/EEC 1(f) and 1(g)) which the E.U. also extends to cover medical softwares.

Further reading

  • 1
    You are not reading copyright licence terms. No, the document that I'm reading is explicitly marked as license. The user manual itself, which is clearly marked as user manual, does not contain the information you're mentioning.
    – AndrejaKo
    Sep 28, 2018 at 6:03
  • 6
    This is why I put it right at the top, to bring your error up front. Your confusion is understandable, but you are wrong. The filename containing the statements does not make any difference at all. You should read 21 CFR 1.801.4, as I left you to do, for why.
    – JdeBP
    Sep 28, 2018 at 7:10
  • This is a better-sourced version of my answer, so +1. I had to double-check if you weren't a colleague posting under a pen name.
    – MSalters
    Sep 28, 2018 at 17:54

The GNU GPL explicitly gives anyone receiving a copy of the software the right to use it for any purpose. That is in direct contradiction to "for research purposes only" and "CAN NOT be used for commercial purposes". So yes, that makes the license as a whole self-contradictory.

You are right that the licenses themselves are not free, but that only restricts making derived works of the license text itself. Just saying "GPL for research purposes only" does not make a derived work in a copyright sense, so the author of this program is free to do so. UPDATE: The GPLv3 text with additional notes should probably be considered a derived work, in which case the authors are violating the copyright of the Free Software Foundation here. That has no bearing on what you can or cannot do however.

As for whether you can restrict the rights listed in the GPL, that depends on who you are. The "you" in the license text is a licensee, i.e. someone who receives a copy of the program under the GPL. Section 10 says that when the licensee gives someone else a copy, that third party automatically gets all the same rights from the copyright owner (the licensor), and the licensee cannot add any other restrictions, e.g. by having the third party sign a contract first.

However, if this author is the copyright holder of the program, then they themselves are not a licensee, and they're not restricted by the GPL. As the copyright holder, they can distribute copies under any terms they like, including "GPL for research purposes only". They would not be distributing their program under the GPL, but that's their choice.

So the author is free to do this. However, restricting the allowed uses does automatically make this software non-free and non-Open Source, as well as incompatible with other GPL software, which makes it a pain to use even in an academic setting.

  • 3
    That would lead to quite an odd result that you would be subject to the limitation that it be used for research purposes only but anyone you distributed the work to would not be subject to that limitation. The GPL specifically says that when you distribute a work to someone, they automatically get a license from the original licensor under the GPL's terms without additional restrictions. Significant changes to the GPL itself would be needed to change this and that would produce a derivative work of the GPL, which the original author has no right to do. Sep 25, 2018 at 16:45
  • 4
    Well, only on the assumption that the copyright holder licensed the work under the GPL. I'd argue that in this case, they didn't. Instead, they licensed it under a somewhat implicitly defined license that gives people all the rights and obligations in the GPL, except the right to non-research use. It seems to me that that clause should then be considered to have been modified to mean that the third party would get those same rights from the owner as well. I'm no judge though, and it's up for debate. One more reason not to use this license construction. Sep 25, 2018 at 19:28
  • 2
    That argument doesn't work because it would mean they're violating the GPL themselves. They have no right to distribute any works covered by the GPL that they didn't author under this "implicitly defined license". And, at a minimum, they didn't author the GPL. The entire purpose of the GPL is to prevent precisely this type of additional encumbrance and there is no way to obtain the right to copy and distribute the GPL for this purpose. Sep 25, 2018 at 20:58
  • 4
    Copyright law says that the copyright holder can choose to license their work in any way they want, including not at all. And the license is how they license their work to others, not to themselves. So it's impossible for the copyright holder of the program to violate the GPL (unless there are GPL dependencies that we're not aware of, in that case they would be a licensee and the GPL would apply to them). A license that consists of the GPL with additional restrictions is how they license their code to others. Sep 26, 2018 at 9:06
  • 1
    Yes, copyright law says that the copyright holder can choose to license their work in any way they want, including not at all. So let's look at how the copyright holders of the GPL chose to license it. For the GPLv2, it says that "changing it is not allowed". Attempting to modify the GPL would violate the GPL's clause against changing it. So it's definitely possible for the copyright holder of the program to violate the GPL. The copyright holder must distribute and copy the GPL, so they must comply with the GPL's license -- which prohibits modifying the GPL's terms. Sep 26, 2018 at 9:14

Of course laws vary from country to country.

Not knowing which country the software comes from and not knowing in which country the software will be used makes it difficult.

Summary valid for Germany

  1. A programmer would be allowed to say: "This program is provided under the terms of the GPL with the following exceptions/modifications: ..."

  2. Because the "GPL for research purposes only" is a license which is not compatible to the GPL you would not be allowed to use "real" GPL code in programs licensed in such a license

  3. Actually the "GPL for research purposes only" would simply be different license than the "GPL" - just like the "Microsoft EULA" which is not the same license as the "GPL".

    Just like users of Microsoft products must observe the terms of the EULA, users of such a program must observe the "exceptions and modifications".

About point 1

The GPL is a copyrighted work. What license permits you to copy and distribute the GPL with a work that the GPL itself does not apply to?

  • If you ship a copy of the GPL or of the modified GPL with your program:
    Maybe yes (if the GPL is copyrighted).

    However if you don't ship a copy of the GPL and write:
    "I want you to follow all terms and conditions of the GPL which you you can download from the FSF plus the following terms and conditions: ...":
    No (even if the GPL is copyrighted)

    According to the German UrhG law you would even be allowed to cite small parts of the GPL without needing the copyright owner's permission.

  • German UrhG law defines which kind of work can be copyright protected at all:
    "Literature, scientific work and arts" (*)

    There were already trials in court if texts not matching one of these categories can be copyright protected or not.

    For example there was a trial at the LG Stuttgart court about the text of a contract (and the GPL is a contract). The decision of the court:

    Normally the text of contracts cannot be copyright protected because they are neither "literature" nor "scientific" nor "artwork". Only "very outstanding" contracts can be seen as "literature" (*) and therefore are protected. For this reason contracts normally can be copied and modified without needing any permission.

    Needless to say that sentences like "this text is copyright protected" have no relevance at all when the law says that a certain text is not copyright protected.

    (*) As "amon" mentioned in his comment the translation "literature" is not 100% correct; the law for example explicitly says that "computer programs" are "literature".

About point 3

You can say "this is the GPL with additional restrictions" but Section 7 means I can ignore those restrictions

There was a trial at the LG Munich court if the GPL simply can be ignored or if you have to follow the GPL terms and conditions when you distribute the Linux OS.

One of the main questions was the English word "license" means. The answer of the court was:

  • You are only allowed to use software when you have the permission of the copyright owner.
  • A "license" is the set of conditions that the copyright owner requires you to observe to grant you the permission to use the software.
  • So by licensing a program under GPL the copyright owner grants the permission only under certain conditions. If you don't observe these conditions, no permissions were granted and you are not allowed to use the software.

So if a software's license information says: "GPL for research only" ...

  • ... the copyright owner grants you permissions only if you use the software for research. He or she does not grant you permissions for any other use. So using the software for any other purpose would be using the software without permission.
  • ... the "set of conditions you have to observe" is obviously not the same as the set of conditions described in the GPL. Therefore the "GPL for research only" and the "GPL" are two different sets of conditions and therefore two different "licenses".

About point 2

The LG Berlin court has decided that the term that GPL code must only be used in other GPL programs is a valid condition.

So by licensing your software under GPL license you grant other programmers to use your code in other GPL-licensed programs but you don't automatically grant them to use your code in programs not licensed under GPL conditions.

And as I have written above a program licensed under a "modified GPL" is not licensed under "GPL" so it would be illegal to use foreign GPL-licensed code in such programs.

  • 1
    The GPL itself says that any additional restrictions on it are not valid (section 10). Of course the main purpose of it is to prevent people from re-publishing GPL work under non-GPL compatible licenses (or try to do so in a stealthy manner) but depending on how exactly the license on OPs example was worded it might apply.
    – Cubic
    Sep 25, 2018 at 16:06
  • 3
    Why wouldn't that be violating the license to the GPL? You are copying and distributing the GPL. The GPL is a copyrighted work. What license permits you to copy and distribute the GPL with a work that the GPL itself does not apply to? Sep 25, 2018 at 16:48
  • 2
    This is exactly what Section 7 is for. You can say "this is the GPL with additional restrictions" but Section 7 means I can ignore those restrictions. Sep 25, 2018 at 17:22
  • 4
    You seem to be making a lot of interesting assertions about German law here. Could you provide some references to support these assertions? Sep 25, 2018 at 21:42
  • 2
    @MartinRosenau OK I read the LG Stuttgart decision. You are right that they treat contracts as utilitarian, not literary texts. But this alone does not affect copyrightability, the necessary threshold of creativity is just much higher for utilitarian texts. They ruled that a contract was not copyrightable because that contract just strings common legal phrases together. It does not follow that the GPL as a contract is uncopyrightable. At very least the GPL preamble has literary character and is copyrightable. The GPL terms might be so outstanding that their phrasing is copyrightable by itself.
    – amon
    Sep 26, 2018 at 8:25
<TheProject> is for research purposes only.  
<TheProject> CAN NOT be used for commercial purposes.

I read this differently. There's some critical defect in the software's reliability rendering unfit for use OR there's a legal restriction other than the GPL in effect here that the author is not able to remove.

It's likely attuned software for medical research and doesn't have FDA certification for production use.

For an extremely bad analogy: the old Sun Java installers had a clause in the license "not licensed for use on nuclear reactors". It wasn't a political statement. As a matter of fact, the developers knew this was a very bad idea. At the time Java had a defect so bad that it rendered the entire machine it was running on unable to meet hard-realtime guarantees. Here I'd be speculating, but it's most likely they couldn't stomach the liability.

So I read this as an extremely short statement warning people not to do this. If they wrote it out in the explicitly legal form it wouldn't be understood so they appeared to impose additional restrictions so nobody would try it. It's hard to argue that something under "ADDITIONAL NOTES" is actual contract terms anyway.

  • If there is a legal restriction other than the GPL, the software cannot be distributed under the GPL. I don't care if the software doesn't have FDA certification, I might want to take a bit of the source code and use it in a completely different project in a completely different field. Sep 26, 2018 at 21:56
  • @PhilipKendall: I think we're talking about the same thing.
    – Joshua
    Sep 26, 2018 at 22:07
  • 1
    If your analogy were true, then the clause should have mentioned also that the software isn't licensed for avionics, medical or other safety-critical uses, because those would be affected just as much by the defect. Sep 27, 2018 at 5:28
  • @BartvanIngenSchenau It very much depends on what the software actually does. Software that processes CT images, for example, could be used on medical patient data, but can't reasonably expected to be used to land an airplane. Java, due to its nature as a software platform, could very well find itself part of a medical device or nuclear reactor control system.
    – user71659
    Sep 29, 2018 at 23:02
  • 1
    @PhilipKendall A large number of nations/EU have sanctions against commerce with North Korea and also the export of software, like firewalls, to countries which use them to violate human rights. The Wassenar Agreement limits your ability to export dual-use (military) technologies, including cryptography. With your logic, essentially no software could be licensed under the GPL in pretty much any country.
    – user71659
    Sep 30, 2018 at 9:00

This software isn't actually licensed under the GPL. It is licensed under a license created by the software author, which is inspired by the GPL - to the point where the software author apparently copied large portions of the GPL. The software author could even have copied the GPL and modified section 7 in the process. If he left section 7 intact, it would be up to the courts to decide what prevails. The outcome of any case is of course always up for guesses, but my guess is that a court would throw out the section 7 restriction in this case, because the intent of the author is clear.

Alternatively, a court could come to the conclusion that a licensee can exercise his right in section 7, but that this would automatically result in termination of the complete license, because there no longer is a "meeting of the minds" - that is, an agreement between the two parties on what the terms really should be.

Either way, the section 7 clause probably wouldn't hold up in court. At least based on my understanding of the law, and based on what would apply in California.

That said, the FSF could potentially sue anybody who uses such a modified GPL and heavily borrows verbatim text for copyright infringement. The question is whether this is practical.

  • 1
    Side note that doesn't apply to this case: the FSF gives general permission to modify the GPL, persuant to a few conditions about the name and preamble: opensource.stackexchange.com/q/253/50
    – apsillers
    Sep 27, 2018 at 19:22

I cannot comment, so I leave you this link with the inverse question if a GPL3 license can be retricted to non commercial use only:

(And in fact, if you look it from that side, well the GPL license cannot be restricted, but you can restrict when GPL applies and when not. Officially they're not changing the GPL3 license. They are saying, that if you use the software for research purpose, the GPL3 license applies, but if you use it connercially, well, you have no right to do so, so there's no license for this use-case. And that is completely legal as far as I know. The use case comes in before the license applies, as far as I can see...)

Is it possible to restrict GNU GPLv3 to non-commercial use only?

EDIT: Ok, given Bart van Ingen Schenau's answer and checking the license itself it's very clear:

I'd like to license my code under the GPL, but I'd also like to make it clear that it can't be used for military and/or commercial uses. Can I do this? (#NoMilitary)

No, because those two goals contradict each other. The GNU GPL is designed specifically to prevent the addition of further restrictions. GPLv3 allows a very limited set of them, in section 7, but any other added restriction can be removed by the user. More generally, a license that limits who can use a program, or for what, is not a free software license.


If I use a piece of software that has been obtained under the GNU GPL, am I allowed to modify the original code into a new program, then distribute and sell that new program commercially? (#GPLCommercially)

You are allowed to sell copies of the modified program commercially, but only under the terms of the GNU GPL. Thus, for instance, you must make the source code available to the users of the program as described in the GPL, and they must be allowed to redistribute and modify it as described in the GPL.

These requirements are the condition for including the GPL-covered code you received in a program of your own.

  • 1
    The GPL license states that as an author you don't get to say for which types of applications the GPL applies and which not. One thing, though, is that the GPL terms are incompatible with the common business practice of making money from selling copies of the software. For that reason, companies prefer to get the software under a different license and they are usually happy to pay for that. Sep 30, 2018 at 18:20
  • Agreed, I just checked the FAQ: I'd like to license my code under the GPL, but I'd also like to make it clear that it can't be used for military and/or commercial uses. Can I do this? (#NoMilitary) No, because those two goals contradict each other. The GNU GPL is designed specifically to prevent the addition of further restrictions. GPLv3 allows a very limited set of them, in section 7, but any other added restriction can be removed by the user. More generally, a license that limits who can use a program, or for what, is not a free software license. Sep 30, 2018 at 20:32
  • just EDITED the entry including this info Sep 30, 2018 at 20:39

As far as I know, GPL 2 and 3 are not themselves free, in sense that you can't change them and still call them GPL.

Correct, the license for the GPLv2 and GPLv3 documents themselves is:

Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.

However, in this case, sticking something on the end of the license file (with a clear delimiter) is probably "aggregation", which is probably fine. Lots of people do it to provide a single license document, and the FSF hasn't started suing people who do that. So you could also claim estoppel (fancy legal term for "you knew about this and if you wanted to sue about it then you should have done it ages ago, you didn't object so I thought you were alright with it, so it's too late to sue now"). In practise the FSF (who own the copyright in the GPL license documents themselves) are extremely unlikely to sue over it.

Also, as far as I remember, they don't allow developers to restrict the rights granted by them. Cases such as GPL, GPL or GPL + exceptions, or GPL or another license are possible, but GPL with some rights is removed is not allowed.

The copyright owner of the software can license their work under whatever license they like, with whatever exceptions & limitations they like, with very few exceptions.

Of course, that only applies if the person owns the copyright to the whole program. If the program is based on a GPLv2 work that has no exceptions or limitations, then the program can only be licensed under GPLv2, no extra exceptions or limitations can be added unless all the copyright owners agree.

Given the above, is the idea of licensing code under "GPL for research purposes only" self-contradictory?

Nope, it's perfectly legal.

It's also a bad idea, because it leads to license proliferation and fragmentation. "GPLv2 for research purposes only" code cannot be mixed with real GPLv2 code - or rather it's impossible to legally ship the combination.


In the United States, you can ignore these alleged restrictions. Those statements are simply notices. They are not binding on you because you have not agreed to them. A notice cannot take away any right you would otherwise have.

A book cannot contain a "license page" that says you may not read the book on Thursdays and have that "license" be enforceable. That's simply not the way copyright works in the United States.

If you own something, you can do anything you want with it unless a law says you can't do it or you agreed not to do it. You own the piece of software and you haven't made any agreements not to do things with it. So that means you can do anything copyright law doesn't say you can't do. You need the copyright holder's permission to do any of those things and the copyright holder can impose conditions on only those things that you need their permission to do.

If you have a look at 17 USC 106, you'll see things like producing derivative works and distributing copies. And that's why the GPL can put restrictions on producing derivative works and distributing copies.

Now let's look at those restrictions:

is for research purposes only.

Nope, ordinary use is a right of possession in the United States. A copyright holder can't impose requirements on mere use of the work.

CAN NOT be used for commercial purposes.

Again, ordinary use is a right of possession, even commercial use unless you're performing the work publicly, which wouldn't apply here.

SHOULD NOT be used for medical purposes.

Not a restriction.

The authors WILL NOT be responsible for using in medical conditions.

Not a restriction.

Obviously, you should check with a lawyer. But at least in my non-professional opinion, none of these restrictions are unforceable in the United States unless you agree to them being made enforceable by agreeing to them.

  • The standing position in the US is that you have no right to use the work at all, or even to possess a copy, unless the rightsholder permits this. The licence, such as it is, is all that permits any use of the work. You seem to be claiming that the licence is both valid (to permit the OP to use it) and invalid (because it's perfectly possible for a licence to contain enforceable use restrictions). Other analyses rest on whether you can add additional restrictions to GPLv3 or whether you can modify GPLv3 without changing the name, and I find these more persuasive.
    – MadHatter
    Sep 25, 2019 at 5:53
  • @MadHatter No, that's not how it works.That has no basis in the law whatsoever. 17 USC 106 says the things that you need a copyright holder's permission to do. Otherwise, if you own a physical object, you can do whatever you want with it. Otherwise, you could not read a book that you lawfully bought unless the book contained a "license page" granting you that permission. Everything is legal that is not made illegal,, not the reverse. You don't need a license to do what you want with what is yours, but you do need a license to do what the law says you need someone's permission to do. Sep 25, 2019 at 6:43
  • @MadHatter A license can only contain enforceable use restrictions if you agree to it. A book that contains a page that says "redheaded lefties may not read this book on Sundays" is not enforceable (unless you agree to it in exchange for something) because a lawful possessor of a work already has the right to its ordinary use because that is a right of physical possession in the United States. You have that right because no law says you need anyone's permission to do what you want with a physical object that you own that applies to that case. See 17 USC 106. (Under US law.) Sep 25, 2019 at 7:05
  • I know you believe that, but actual lawyers disagree with you. See eg Pamela Chestek's comments on the GPL in US law in this talk at FOSDEM: "all the licenses under consideration are likely to be regarded as contracts" (of which the GPL was one), and "acceptance is by conduct". You really don't have to have a signed copy of the GPL with a dollar paid over for it to be bi-directionally enforceable. Right of first sale does not apply to licenced content in the way you're suggesting, either.
    – MadHatter
    Sep 25, 2019 at 7:45
  • In the interests of full disclosure: I wrote the article. But Pam comments below it, so we know she's read it, and having discussed the article with her after publication I also believe she's happy with how what she said was represented. Furthermore, you can watch the original talk on video if you feel you need to, link's at the bottom of the article.
    – MadHatter
    Sep 25, 2019 at 7:49

Is GPL “for research purposes only” self-contradictory?


But I am not a lawyer and not your lawyer.

The important insight is the notion of copyright. It also applies to the text of the GPL license. Please read carefully https://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-3.0.en.html

AFAIK, the GPL license text is not "allowed" to be modified and still called GPL.

Observe that the text of GPLv3 is not CC-BY-SA licensed. So copyright rules apply to that text.

But you need to ask your lawyer.

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