I want to use GIMP, Inkscape, and Lightzone for work in a government environment. Not modify the software, just use the applications. Does the license allow me to use the software in such environment?

I'm pretty sure this is allowable, I just can't find anything stating it explicitly

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    Which department of which government? I'm pretty sure they don't all have the same rules. Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 19:55
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    Perhaps you could clarify whether you meant "does the licence allow me to use the software for government work" or "does the government allow me to use the software for government work"?
    – MadHatter
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 12:06
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    More fundamentally, which government? World? Federal? State? Province? Municipality? Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 16:08
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    Al, please edit the question to clarify.
    – prl
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 20:46
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    Note that BSD originates from the University of California, Berkeley, which is a government-run institution. Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 0:08

6 Answers 6


Let me quote the relevant section from the GPL v3 license, emphasis mine:

2. Basic Permissions.

All rights granted under this License are granted for the term of copyright on the Program, and are irrevocable provided the stated conditions are met. This License explicitly affirms your unlimited permission to run the unmodified Program. The output from running a covered work is covered by this License only if the output, given its content, constitutes a covered work. This License acknowledges your rights of fair use or other equivalent, as provided by copyright law.

You may make, run and propagate covered works that you do not convey, without conditions so long as your license otherwise remains in force. You may convey covered works to others for the sole purpose of having them make modifications exclusively for you, or provide you with facilities for running those works, provided that you comply with the terms of this License in conveying all material for which you do not control copyright. Those thus making or running the covered works for you must do so exclusively on your behalf, under your direction and control, on terms that prohibit them from making any copies of your copyrighted material outside their relationship with you.

The wording of the BSD license makes this implicit:

Redistribution and use in source and binary forms, with or without modification, are permitted provided that the following conditions are met:

So there's nothing from the GPL and BSD licenses preventing you from running the programs in any scenario, and the GPL even reaffirms so.

Also, note that both GPL and BSD are OSI-approved licenses; that means that the license complies with the Open Source Definition, which states:

6. No Discrimination Against Fields of Endeavor

The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research.

Therefore, this assures that GPL- and BSD-licensed software can be used in any field / kind of work, including governmental.

A different question is whether your particular workplace/scenario/organization allows you to run GPL/BSD licensed software.

And, of course, if you were distributing the programs or allowing other people to use it, the situation would be different. Since you're talking about desktop productivity/graphics software (GIMP, inkscape, etc) this is not the case.


The definition of Free Software includes anyone being able to use the software for any purpose (any field of endeavor and no discrimination against persons or groups). So no version of the GPL, or any other Free Software license can prevent the DoD or any other government entity from using the software.

Note that some software or the things that some software does could be banned in various countries or perhaps under international treaty, but that isn't really license related.

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    Actually, no, "free" software cannot necessarily be used for any purpose. It's subject to the restrictions of its license, so for example you can't use GNU Readline in a proprietary application you distribute to others only in binary form. Some open-source licenses even prevent you from using the code in web applications for which you don't distribute the source code. Open source is only "always free" in the sense that you never have to pay money for the source code.
    – cjs
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 5:31
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    @CurtJ.Sampson, that is not use, but distribution. If you have source code under a non-free licence that uses libreadline, you can link against the library and use it legally, but you are not permitted to give the binaries to someone else (but you could give out the non-free source and instructions to link it). Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 8:07
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    @Curt While "use" is definitely an overloaded term, it seems that "use" here means strictly "execute" (since that's the sense in which "use" is used in the body of the question, which does not include distribution and explicitly excludes modification). This is a different category of action from modification or distribution, which you discuss correctly in your comment. The disagreement here is purely about what actions are covered under the semantics of "use", not what the consequences of each action might be. (Note the network-app case you mention is modification-activated.)
    – apsillers
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 10:52
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    @CurtJ.Sampson, that is the definition of "use" from the GPL. Running the software on your server and letting users interact with it also counts as "use" and is generally unrestricted, which is why the AGPL exists. Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 11:44
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    @CurtJ.Sampson - you notice of course that I qualified it with the terms from the Open Source Definition - any field of endeavor and no discrimination against persons or groups.
    – ivanivan
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 12:05

Different organizations have different policies. Google is apparently fine with GPL software, but doesn't permit AGPL. Facebook seems fine with both, but anything under the SSPL or with a Commons Clause addendum is right out. My company is fine with MIT/BSD/Apache, GPL, and AGPL but bans proprietary software.

So I don't think there is a hard and fast rule that we can point to; you will have to ask your employer what the applicable policy is.

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    While this is good overview at the organizations' side of the matter, I think (though maybe I'm wrong) that the OP is asking if the licenses themselves prohibit use in a government context.
    – apsillers
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 20:39
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    @apsillers an excellent point, though it had never occurred to me that anyone could ask that. Fortunately, ivanivan has done an excellent job answering that interpretation of the question. Perhaps the OP could clarify which (s)he meant?
    – MadHatter
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 6:55
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    For the record, there's a big difference in policies depending on whether you're talking about using software/library as part of your own product/service (i.e. integration/linking), or if you're simply talking about installing and using the software. This answer seems to be talking about the former, whereas OP specifically asked about the latter.
    – A C
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 6:24
  • @AC I agree that policies will likely be different for use vs. distribute, but this answer covers simple usage as well as distribution.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 9:51

Whilst others have covered the legal aspects, I think it's worth noting there are numerous real-world examples of government agencies successfully using open-source licences without issue.

Germany's government is quite fond of open source solutions:

the federal government of Germany has decided to partner with Nextcloud–a popular open source file sync and collaborative service provider.


The International Space Station, and thus NASA, uses Linux:

the “dozens of laptops” will make the change to Debian 6. These laptops will join many other systems aboard the ISS that already run various flavors of Linux, such as RedHat and Scientific Linux.


Ubuntu was even approved for use by the federal government:

Canonical's Ubuntu has become third Linux operating system approved by the General Services Administration for use by federal purchasers


The US Navy Oceanographic Office uses Linux:

On a grander scale, many federal agencies are also using Linux. One example is the US Navy Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO), which collects and analyzes the world's oceans for the benefit of both the Navy and other Department of Defense agencies, is currently using Linux in certain environments.


The UK government even encourages the adoption of open standards, including ODF and ODF-compatible software, such as LibreOffice:


A number of governments even open-source their own works:

The UK government has it's own dedicated open-source licence: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/3/

The US government in 2014 trialled open-sourcing some of it's code (for internal government reuse): https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20160808/17314335186/us-government-now-has-official-open-source-software-policy.shtml

The DoD and USAF even offered up a lightweight Linux OS: https://www.geek.com/chips/u-s-dept-of-defense-offers-up-tiny-secure-linux-distribution-1405659/

There's plenty of other examples which you can find. I even work in a government organisation and we use a variety of GPL and open-source style licences (including Ubuntu and CentOS). It's advisable you read and comply with the terms of each given licence as stated.

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    Additional example: France provides an annually updated list of FLOSS software recommended for use in administration. Here is the 2019 version: mim-libre.fr/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/sill-2019-pub.pdf. Various branches of the administration also publish their custom software in their dedicated GitHub & GitLab accounts.
    – Droplet
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 10:08

In general, yes. However, some government agencies place additional requirements on their software, either by policy or by law.

Example: The USG often requires FIPS certification for cryptographic modules.

Obviously, there may be other types of certification for other use cases. I don't believe there are any for graphics editing, but I don't work in that industry.

Certification costs are often borne by the developer, so most FOSS packages aren't certified. This is part of the reason why OpenSSL and Red Hat are important parts of the ecosystem; they allow penetration into regulated sectors.

In general GPL and BSD are permissible, but it depends on the specific industry, policies, and laws.


The License doesn't prohibit installation and usage as others have mentioned, but each agency will likely perform its own risk and compliance analysis. For example, the VA has reviewed both GIMP and Inkscape and approved usage (with constraints): Inkscape: https://www.oit.va.gov/Services/TRM/ToolPage.aspx?tid=8240 GIMP: https://www.oit.va.gov/Services/TRM/ToolPage.aspx?tid=5982

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