Open Source

Is it legal to sell GPL software?

Marco Fioretti answers a TechRepublic member's questions about charging fees for software that's made available under the GNU GPL License version 2 or 3.

Selling GPL software
A TechRepublic reader recently asked the following questions in the forums:

  1. Please give me simple advice on this topic: Is it okay when selling software to charge small fees for it (e.g. 1/2 dollars) if that software is made available under the GNU GPL License version 2 or 3?
  2. If yes, when I sell such software, should I provide source code as well or just the license together with the executable file?

    Since these are very general questions, we decided that I should answer with a public post, of course starting with a big...

    DISCLAIMER: First, this post covers almost exclusively GPL licensed software, but there are other free/open source software (FOSS) licenses that work in different ways. Above all, I am not a lawyer, and some details below may be slightly different in some jurisdictions and/or specific sub-cases that I can't completely cover here. Be sure to check the links at the bottom of this post for more details.

    With that said, dear TechRepublic reader, the short answer to your first question is: yes, you can legally sell software with a GPL license version 2 or 3 for whatever price you want to charge.

    The GNU project itself "encourages people who redistribute free software to charge as much as they wish or can... You can charge nothing, a penny, a dollar, or a billion dollars. It's up to you, and the marketplace."

    Please note that "as much as you wish" only applies to the executable form of the software, not its source code. This is explained in subsections 6a and 6b of the GPL: if you want to sell a binary copy of a GPL software program, you must include either its complete source code or a written, formal offer valid at least three years to provide it to whoever possesses the binary. In more detail, you have to provide:

    • a copy of the complete sources for a price no more than your reasonable cost of physically delivering them, or
    • "access to copy [the complete sources] from a network server at no charge"

      Of course, all users of free software enjoy these same freedoms. The people to whom you sold copies of GPL software are just as free as you are to make copies and sell them for whatever price they feel is right, including a price equal to zero.

      The same general conditions apply to other popular FOSS licenses. OpenOffice, for example, is distributed under the Apache license. This means (quoting from a resource link below) that everybody can sell it via eBay or any other channel, for whatever price people are willing to pay, without any obligation to share their profits with the OpenOffice Community.

      What about identity and customer rights?

      GPL and other FOSS licenses give everybody the right to "sell" software with the constraints above, for whatever price the market will bear. They do not, however, give anybody the right to fool customers or give them misleading information. They couldn't do it, even if those were good things. At the same time, in and by themselves, licenses can't protect you from certain abuses.

      Again, I'm not a lawyer, but here's an explanation that should be substantially correct. Software licenses are applications of copyright. Software developers can impose conditions (that is, licenses) on the reuse and redistribution of their code, because they hold the copyright on that code. Copyright also deals with attribution: in general, even if you may redistribute my code, you may not claim that you are the original author.

      Copyright and licenses do not regulate "identity"-related issues outside the code itself. Company names and logos, for examples, are the domain of different legal constructs, e.g. trademarks.

      If you grab some software I released with a GPL or similar license, you do get the right (among others) to sell that code as I explained above, without giving a penny back or even saying thanks. You do not, however, automatically get any right to:

      • say that that is your original work
      • keep the logo of my organization on it
      • tell your customers, or let them believe, that we are partners, or that I am obligated in any way to give them support or refunds if they're not satisfied

      This doesn't mean that those actions are always, surely illegal! It just means that they are "customers rights" or "fair business" issues outside the scope of the software license.

      So, that is why the Apache license says that you can do pretty much what you want with the code as such, but you must obtain their permission before using their trademarks, including their logo. These are also the reasons why we can have GNU/Linux distributions like CentOS, which is basically the same as Red Hat minus "vendor branding and artwork."

      Additional resources

      To find out more about selling free/open source software, please check these resources, which are the ones I used as my basis for this post:


      About

      Marco Fioretti is a freelance writer and teacher whose work focuses on the impact of open digital technologies on education, ethics, civil rights, and environmental issues.

      4 comments
      pmshah
      pmshah

      It you come to see what has Apple done? Their entire OS X is based on BSD, which is free to all, Either Open-BSD oi FreeBSD. This of course does not fall under  the so called GPL licensing norm but is quite similar. I believe one can sell software developed using some parts of GPL code but cannot restrict the buyer from using on unlimited machines or prevent them from making modifications as it becomes open source too.

      monsuco
      monsuco

      Richard Stallman, head of the Free Software Foundation and author of the GPL, used to sell his GPL software for a living. I suppose at the time, even if the software was free it was still often easier to just pay him to send you some tapes since the alternative was to try to find a usenet post, BBS or FTP site from which to download it and pray that your modem didn't drop its connection over the course of the several hours that would take. You could make copies of those tapes and give/sell them to others, but you had to have the hardware and patience to do so.

      Red Hat Enterprise Linux is sold. You can legally download the source code for it, compile it and redistribute the results as the article points out CentOS does. Red Hat does, of course, have the right to kick cloned OSes off of their update servers and to demand the clones remove Red Hat's trademarks. When people buy RHEL, they're basically paying for the commercial support that comes with it. You can preload GPL software onto devices and sell them. System 76 sells computers with Ubuntu on them. Plenty of people set up Raspbian on SD cards and sell them since the Raspberry Pi can be tricky to set up for new users.

      Gisabun
      Gisabun

      @monsuco : Red Hat also support Fedora - a free version [without the support] of their Linux version. I don't see anything wrong if you sell a GPL product [that you "created"] if you supply proper support - and not just a forum.

      mfioretti
      mfioretti

      @Gisabun @monsuco

      " I don't see anything wrong if you sell a GPL product [that you "created"] if you supply proper support - and not just a forum"

      that's true, of course, but the whole or main point of my post is to point out that the inventors of the GPL themselves see NOTHING wrong in just selling copies of a GPL product for ANY price and WITHOUT any support (providing the source code isn't really "support"), and have clearly said so since the beginning.

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