I know that if I buy a device it counts as distributing the software that comes with it, therefore entitling me to ask for sources of the GPL code within.

But what if the hardware is technically loaned? The particular case I have in mind is ISP-provided hardware like my router or set-top box.

  • IANAL. But in my understanding that makes no difference. It may vary wildly on the legislation. – planetmaker Apr 27 '20 at 22:55
  • Since it was distributed to me anyways, eh? I'll probably ask on reddit's law subs if no one answers here. – Jan Dorniak Apr 27 '20 at 22:57

I'll consider specifically the GPLv3, since to my mind the terms in it are more tightly defined, and since you don't ask about any particular, older version. I'll also consider only software in which some third party has a copyright interest, which interest they licensed to the ISP under GPLv3; the analysis is different if the ISP is the sole rightsholder in the affected software.

The obligations are placed on the your ISP by the act of conveying binary software covered by GPLv3, by s6 "You may convey a covered work in object code form under the terms of sections 4 and 5". Both s4 (which applies to verbatim copies) and s5 (which applies to modified copies) require that the software be conveyed under GPLv3 (ss4, 5c), and s6 obliges them to provide source code (plus build scripts, makefiles, etc., as per s1).

What is conveyance? From s0,

To “convey” a work means any kind of propagation that enables other parties to make or receive copies

Well, you've received a copy, in the device you currently hold. Did the act of providing it constitute propagation? s0 also says that

To “propagate” a work means to do anything with it that, without permission, would make you directly or secondarily liable for infringement under applicable copyright law, except executing it on a computer or modifying a private copy. Propagation includes copying, distribution (with or without modification)...

That says nothing about transfer of ownership; the ISP merely has to make, and/or to provide you with, a copy of software that they would have had no permission to copy and/or distribute had the GPL not granted it to them. Subject to the stipulations at the top of my answer, this they have done. So it seems to me that the executable copy of the GPL software (if any) in the set-top box you hold has been conveyed to you by your ISP. Their decision not to sell but to rent you the box containing it doesn't change this.

  • Thank you very much. This is great. Although you caught me - I should have specified v2. – Jan Dorniak Apr 28 '20 at 7:19
  • My gut feeling is that the analysis applies to GPLv2 also, via s3 which applies when your ISP acts to "copy and distribute" the software, but it's harder to make because GPLv2 does not so clearly define its terms. – MadHatter Apr 28 '20 at 7:41
  • thank you very much. I have another question - about device trees. But I will post it separately. – Jan Dorniak Apr 28 '20 at 7:44
  • 1
    @JanDorniak thank you so much for not doing the "chameleon question" thing (where someone writes a question, gets it answered, then modifies it to include supplementary questions that have arisen, and so on). Asking a new question is absolutely the right thing to do, and I look forward to reading it. – MadHatter Apr 28 '20 at 7:47
  • I scrapped that question. I realized while writing it that it's a technicality which is unprovable anyway. – Jan Dorniak Apr 28 '20 at 8:23

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