On Ubuntu I see for many packages copyright file under /usr/share/doc/%PKG_NAME%/. In the file of some of those packages, I see the following at the end of the file (protobuf, which looks like BSD (github, as an example):

$ tail /usr/share/doc/libprotobuf-dev/copyright 
On Debian systems, the complete text of the Apache License can be found in

The Debian packaging is:

        Copyright (C) 2008, 2009, 2010 Iustin Pop <iusty@k1024.org>

and is licensed under the GPL version 3,
see `/usr/share/common-licenses/GPL-3'.

Does this mean the debian package version of the package is GPL v3??

$ lsb_release -a
No LSB modules are available.
Distributor ID: Ubuntu
Description:    Ubuntu 16.04.6 LTS

Debian packages often combine multiple projects into one package. The copyright file typically contains very accurate descriptions of which parts are available under what license. The copyright file will usually contain glob patterns that match specific files to some license.

The result is that yes, the libprotobuf-dev package in its entirety does contain GPL parts. This does not mean that the library in the package is subject to the GPL.

The copyright file explicitly declares its format, typically the format described at https://www.debian.org/doc/packaging-manuals/copyright-format/1.0/. The file consists of paragraphs, each of which map files to a license (identifier or full text) or map a license identifier to the full license text. You should therefore read the file from the start, not from the end where there is just the full license text.

E.g. my version of the package (3.0.0-9.1ubuntu1) contains the following paragraph:

Files: debian/*
    2009      Dirk Eddelbuettel <edd@debian.org>
    2016      Dmitry Smirnov <onlyjob@debian.org>
    2016      Laszlo Boszormenyi (GCS) <gcs@debian.org>
    2009      Julien Cristau <jcristau@debian.org>
    2013-2014 Robert Edmonds <edmonds@debian.org>
    2008,2009,2010 Iustin Pop <iusty@k1024.org>
License: GPL-3

The package source contains some GPL-covered files, but these are just used for the packaging. They don't affect the library at all. The source also contains an GPL with Autoconf Exception licensed file, but that doesn't affect any dependent code.

If you do not feel comfortable using a Debian package you can always download and build the library yourself. However, Debian packagers are very good at checking the actual licensing status of the software they package, rather than simply relying on the declared license of a library.

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