GPL must be applied on screenshots of GPL software or not. Can a screen recording of GPL software, such as Linux, be published?

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    Is the first sentence a statement or a question? Apr 27, 2020 at 2:23
  • @PeterMortensen It is a question…?
    – basteln
    Apr 27, 2020 at 18:15

2 Answers 2


The question you need to be asking here is whether the picture/screen recording is a derivative work of the copyrighted material or not. In general, the answer to this is "no" (and this is independent of license) - a program compiled with gcc is not a derivative work of gcc, and a document created with Microsoft Word is not a derivative work of Microsoft Word. If the output isn't a derivative work of the copyrighted material, the license of the copyrighted material is irrelevant, and you can distribute it under any license you like.

Probably the most common situation in which in may be possible for a picture to be copyrighted is if it includes significant graphical assets - for example, I couldn't take a screenshot of Super Mario Bros (or Freeciv if you want a GPL example) and then distribute that under an arbitrary license, although various fair use/fair dealing exceptions may apply. You can think of other examples in which the output is subject to the original license - e.g. quines.

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    "a program compiled with gcc is not a derivative work of gcc" - Actually, gcc usually embeds gcc code (the runtime libraries and headers) into the program it's compiling, which means the resulting binary could be viewed as a derivative work. This is enough of an issue that GCC makes an explicit exception for this situation.
    – marcelm
    Apr 26, 2020 at 18:37
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    @marcelm It's not a problem under US law for precisely the same reason coloring in a coloring book is allowed even though it might be technically said to create a derivative work. It wouldn't surprise me if there were countries where this was an issue though. Apr 26, 2020 at 22:37
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    I don't see how the examples ("a program compiled with gcc", "a document created with Microsoft Word") relate to the question, unless gcc or MS Word is taking a screenshot of itself.
    – muru
    Apr 27, 2020 at 7:05
  • @DavidSchwartz : I fear for a future when the justice system will be run by an AI (as to be impartial and incorruptible, to not have human biases), because someone might forget to program in such obvious exceptions, and I'll be dragged to jail for coloring a coloring book and therefore violating copyright law. Human judges would see it, but a computer program going blindly through a ruleset might not. (and I've seen a similar case in high school, there was an inspection issuing fines for pirated things, which just counted the number of .mp3 files. So if I rename an empty text file to mp3...)
    – vsz
    Apr 27, 2020 at 9:23

It depends on how the software is featured in the image whether the image can be considered a derivative work or not and if copyright exceptions apply or not. If the image is a derivative work and no copyright exceptions apply, then it must be licensed under the GPL license.

For an image to be a derivative work of something else, that thing must be the main thing being depicted in the image. So, a screenshot or photo showing only a text editor with Linux code is most likely a derivative work of the shown portion of Linux code. On the other hand, a photo of a study with a monitor in the background showing Linux code is not a derivative work of the Linux code.

And then there is a class of derived works where you don't have to abide by a copyright license, and that is if your work falls under the Fair Use (or similar) exceptions in copyright law. A most notable example of Fair Use is when giving critique. In such cases, Fair Use allows you to reproduce parts of copyrighted works that would otherwise be in violation of the license terms.

  • The photo of the study is almost certainly a derived work. If some proprietary Google, Oracle or Microsoft source code were on that screen, it could be in trouble. In the case of Linux source code, the photo isn't distributing the code in a way that is GPL-violating, because it's not shipping a runnable program.
    – Kaz
    Apr 27, 2020 at 14:10
  • @Kaz, in that case, any picture showing a landmark building would be equally in trouble, because those buildings are protected by intellectual property laws in a similar way as code is. If the shown code was from a proprietary application, it is far more likely that someone would be in trouble for violating trade secrets or an NDA than that the case would be based on a copyright violation. Apr 27, 2020 at 14:23
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    @BartvanIngenSchenau At least in the UK, photos of (modern) landmark buildings are already an issue. Apr 27, 2020 at 15:18
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    @PhilipKendall, for a picture of such a landmark building, I understand the issues. The big question is if a picture with "the London skyline" in the background (which happens to include several of those landmark buildings) is equally infringing on all those copyrights. Apr 27, 2020 at 15:49
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    @BartvanIngenSchenau In the UK, there is a "freedom of panorama" which allows for such photos. As with much copyright law, there isn't a definitive test as to what's a "panorama" and what's a "photo of one building". Apr 27, 2020 at 18:31

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