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Would uploading a file, a program, a script, etc. to an online storage service without sharing it, count as distributing the file to the online service?

More specific cases of interest:

  • If I backup a python script not intended for distribution in a private GitHub/GitLab/etc. repo, which imports a GPL library, do I have to comply with GPL?
  • Normally, running a GPL web service is not distribution. However, what if the web service is running on a server like AWS, where you have to upload it first? Do you have to comply with the GPL for the upload?

I know that GPL compliance in source form is typically easy, but not complying with GPL would allow non-GPL-compatible dependencies. Also, I know it's probably impossible for anyone to actually know if the first case has occurred. I am only asking because GPL has termination conditions.

  • 4
    Case #1 is an interesting question of what or does not constitute distribution. Case #2 is explicitly permitted via special exception in GPLv3 sect. 2, "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 [...] 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." – apsillers May 22 at 15:50
  • @apsillers you want to write that up as an actual answer, or should I? – MadHatter May 23 at 7:14
  • @MadHatter I don't feel prepared to discuss item #1, so go for it. – apsillers May 23 at 10:41
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Would uploading a file, program, script, etc. to an online storage service, without sharing it, count as distributing the file to the online service?

To me, it depends on the terms and conditions of the remote storage service. If the service itself acquires rights to use content you store on it, then yes, it is very possible this constitutes distribution. But if they're simply providing you a safe repository wherein you store data, then it no more constitutes giving them a copy than putting your valuables in a safety deposit box constitutes giving them to the bank.

If I backup a python script not intended for distribution in a private GitHub/GitLab/etc. repo, which imports a GPL library, do I have to comply with GPL?

I don't intend to read their terms and conditions; if you decide to use their private repositories, that's your job. But assuming they don't acquire any rights over and above those needed to safely store a copy of your data and return it on demand, then by Q1 I don't think it does. If they do acquire some rights, then we'd need to know what those are, at which time apsillers' excellent point may come into relevance.

Normally, running a GPL web service is not distribution. However, what if the web service is run on a server like AWS, where you have to upload it first? Do you have to comply with the GPL for the upload?

I'd hold that AWS is rented space, like a safety deposit box, and thus Q1 still applies. I've stored quite a lot of data on some fairly expensive AWS deployments over the years, and I've never heard the slightest suggestion that that data belonged to anyone other whomsoever owned it at the time of storage.

If you make it available to anyone else from that storage, then distribution definitely occurs.

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  • Regarding #1, almost any website that stores user files will have to acquire permissions for normal operation of the software (eg. they need to acquire the right to display the file to you, to index the files, etc.). This leads to a weird situation though: you could be violation of a license, through no fault of your own, because the storage website you are using changes its ToS. – Max Xiong May 23 at 16:55
  • @MaxXiong I agree with your first point, which I also refer to in the second part of my answer above. As for unilateral changes in terms, well, that's always a danger with third-party services with those nastily-elastic terms and conditions that allow change with presumed consent. Nobody would rent a safe deposit box from a bank on the basis that (e.g.) the bank could change the agreement about ownership of the contents by itself, and you had 14 days to get your stuff out, or lose it. But some people leave their data with such providers on a regular basis. – MadHatter May 23 at 18:30
  • I'm pretty sure your example is too far fetched to be legal. There are things that require affirmative action to accept by law (eg. GDPR privacy terms). Also I just realized GitLab does not seem to have a ToS entry that gives them a license to use your code. – Max Xiong May 24 at 4:22
  • I'm pretty sure you're wrong. Here is an article about how common presumed-consent-to-change ToSes are, and here is a reminder about Instagram's terms change which gave them the right to re-sell and relicense content you uploaded. That change they backed down from, but only because the users revolted, not because a court told them that it was unlawful. – MadHatter May 24 at 6:17
  • I'm just saying the example you give allowing a bank to take your money with a TOS change is probably illegal. – Max Xiong May 24 at 7:02

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