For the purpose of giving (on the phone) a micro tutorial on GNU make, I am considering writing two hello world programs in C.

The first one fits in a single file helloworld1.c

The second illustrates compilations in two translation units, so have hello2.c and world2.c and both include helloworld2.h

They are under github at https://github.com/bstarynk/misc-basile/tree/master/HelloWorld (this is self-contained; I am using GPLv3+ in commit da5b940fb4b7cab7b631de, but could change the license if something else is more appropriate)

Can I GPLv3+ license these files (and their Makefile) ??

I feel that such an example is too trivial to be GPLv3+ licensed. It falls into the "obvious code" category, and hello-world was first used 40 years ago as a canonical example of C.

BTW, GNU hello is too complex. It also teaches autoconf, which is out of scope for me.

The juridiction I am under is the French one (I am a French citizen, near Paris, and this is a tiny part of my research engineer work at CEA, a French state owned organization, similar to US DoE). The project funding my work is an European Commission funded one (so under European Union legislation, IIUC), e.g. CHARIOT

PS. Per that MadHatter's answer: I want to GPL that code to send the right signals to people who use it, to show that I am happy to have it reused by people who themselves go on to share. Also, this might be funded (but hopefully not explicitly, it is too small work) by some H2020 project (funding my work on bismon) where contractually all the software I am writing is GPLv3+ licensed. Neither me nor my employer (CEA) is interested in legal trolls or sueing others about these hello-world programs.

PPS. Of course I am not a lawyer.

  • Any licensed work will contain elements that are not copyrightable. There is no need to go through the entire work and say for each relevant part "this part is licensed differently, since it wouldn't be copyrightable." Also, some things might be copyrightable but you might have not actually copied them. For example, the original "hello, world" program is probably implicitly copyrighted. But if you write your own hello, world program which happens to be identical to the original one (because the language requires a certain syntax), that is not forbidden by copyright.
    – Brandin
    Nov 14, 2018 at 9:59

2 Answers 2


I feel that such an example is too trivial to be GPLv3+ licensed.

Firstly, IANAL/IANYL. That said, there's nothing special about the GPL in this regard. If your creation qualifies for copyright protection, you may license it under GPLv3, or any other licence you please, or none at all. The question is merely whether your work qualifies for copyright protection.

Much has been written concerning the threshold of originality in copyright - that is, the quantum of originality that must reside in a creation in order to give it copyright protection. As the linked article says, the Berne Convention (foundation of nearly all modern copyright law) does not define it, which leaves it to individual jurisdictions to decide. So not only is it a thorny question, the answer varies from place to place.

So I think the answer must depend on why you're asking this question. If you want to GPL your code to send the right signals to people who use it, to show that you're happy to have it reused by people who themselves go on to share, I'd say go for it; it's not clear to me that it lacks sufficient originality to qualify. Conversely, if you were hoping to get a lock on all future hello world programs, and start McHardyesque revenue-generating GPL compliance lawsuits against people who write them on the basis that they're derivatives of your work, I'd advise against it; it's not clear to me that it possesses sufficient originality to withstand the attacks that will inevitably follow.

  • 1
    Thank you for your clarifying edit above. I should add that the suggestion of copyright enforcement was very much tongue-in-cheek, and I did not seriously suspect you had that in mind. Nonetheless, it's good to clarify, and your having done so I see no bar to your licensing this stuff under GPLv3+; if it turns out later that it's not sufficiently original to qualify for protection, no harm has been done.
    – MadHatter
    Nov 13, 2018 at 10:06
  • I have just read the wikipedia article on threshold of originality. If something can not be copyright, then I would argue that it can not be an infringement of copyright. Therefore I am taking my monkey to photograph the Eiffel Tower, tonight (the light display clams to be copyright under French copyright law). Nov 13, 2018 at 11:41
  • @ctrl-alt-delor I agree with you: if something doesn't qualify for copyright protection, copying it can't infringe its copyright. Do you have a further point to make?
    – MadHatter
    Nov 13, 2018 at 12:03
  • sorry I was miss-understood. I am saying that if a work can not be copyright, then it can not infringe. So if a monkey can not get copyright protection, then it can not infringe. So get a monkey to make the copy. Nov 13, 2018 at 12:06
  • I don't think that's right, but it doesn't seem relevant here. Do you think the question you have raised, whilst interesting, has any bearing on the OP's question?
    – MadHatter
    Nov 13, 2018 at 12:41

It may be to small, for practical reasons. However you can still Copyright it. The FSF have suggested other Free Software licenses for trivial work (one of the very permissive licenses, not Copyleft). However you say it is part of a larger work.

What does copyright have to say about this?

It says you can copyright it. It says that if a piece of work is identical to a copyright piece of work, and created after it, then this is not sufficient to be a copyright infringement. There must be evidence of copying. (If a work is big, this can also be evidence of copying: statistically it is near impossible to not be a copy.)

There is also fair use. This allows copying of small parts, it the work is to small, then it may allow copying of it all (this depends a lot on the jurisdiction).

  • It is "funded" by some larger project, but as a software it is completely independent and self contained Nov 13, 2018 at 11:55
  • @BasileStarynkevitch what is? May 28, 2020 at 6:45

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