What constitutes a distribution?

Samuel Liddicott sam at liddicott.com
Thu Jul 22 09:56:08 UTC 2004

I raised this a while ago and it has been brought up again in relation 
to Sveasoft who are making "pre-release" distributions with extra 
[The point of this message is not to discuss whether what Sveasoft are 
actually doing is legal, but to discuss what the GPL permits and requires]

Creative commons have a very nice wizard 
http://creativecommons.org/license/ that helps you choose a license.

The GPL is only one license but it has options, perhaps the FSF should 
produce a web page that lets you select some options and then shows you 
your obligations and then gives borderline examples of what would and 
would not fulfil those obligations.

Read on to see the confusion that is ensueing with people who are trying 
to understand the GPL,

Samuel Liddicott wrote:

> I would welcome more clarification on what constitutes a distribution. 
> If a small company modifies and builds and runs GPL software on a 
> single computer they are not required to release the source as the 
> derivative work is not being distributed.  Arguably a larger company 
> (having more than one PC) may use the modified GPL software across the 
> company without releasing source - even if they software is used to 
> provide a public or commercial service - because the derivative work 
> is not being distributed.
> Certainly if the GPL derivative code were made available to another 
> company this would count as a distribution. What about to a different 
> department? What about a different group company? What about to club 
> members? What if the club is a company? What if the club is a company 
> AND a club of companies?

There is clearly still a lot of confusion over what constitues a 
"distribution". If you want to get a better idea of the confusion that 
exists read the full slashdot story and related links at

This issue is extremely important as many rights and obligations of the 
GPL center at the act of "distribution"

I wish someone from the FSF legal team would offer some clarification 
here before some wider precedents are made in relation to the recent 
strategy of:
"If you excercise your rights under the GPL you are excommunicated from 
your supplier and are alone with your source."

This has been tried to some degree by RedHat with their enterprise 
linux, I understand that if you made a distribution of the code you 
received with your support contract that your support contract was then 
terminated. I hope to be corrected in this if I am wrong, but it would 
be a worrying trend;
- but even worse would be the closed-club sharing that is not quite a 
distribution at all.

A good summary of the actual situation is at:

which quotes from Sveasoft:
"/We release two versions of firmware at Sveasoft, public and pre-release.

Subscribers can redistribute public versions of firmware to anyone they 
choose to without any change in their subscription rights. When you 
redistribute public firmware you must offer both source code and 
binaries or you violate the GPL license. Other than this caveat you can 
redistribute whenever and to whomever you choose.

The policy for pre-release firmware is different. You can also choose to 
redistribute pre-release firmware under the GPL. You must also offer 
both source code and binaries as with the public releases. Should you 
choose to redistribute pre-release versions however, your subscription 
rights terminate and you will not have access to the Sveasoft forums or 
future firmware pre-releases afterwards."

/Sveasoft also seem to charge $49 for a CD-ROM of the source to the 

The slashdot user "BJH" goes on to say:
"2) Sveasoft make a distinction between pre-release and public release 
versions of the firmware. This is probably based on the idea that you do 
not have to provide source code if you're distributing software purely 
within your own organization (i.e. not publically distributing it). 
However, that right is not clearly defined in the GPL, and indeed 
section 6 states that:
/6. Each time you redistribute the Program (or any work based on the 
Program), the recipient automatically receives a license from the 
original licensor to copy, distribute or modify the Program subject to 
these terms and conditions. *You may not impose any further restrictions 
on the recipients' exercise of the rights granted herein.* You are not 
responsible for enforcing compliance by third parties to this License./
In my opinion, Sveasoft's artificial distinction between pre-release and 
public release firmware comes into conflict with this section."

user "mdsft13" writes:
" "Now under the terms of the license for access to the server they can 
cancel your server account if you redistribute."

It's still a restriction on *distribution* which they can't do and be 
complying with the GPL. "

user "black mariah" sees it thus:
" They're not putting restrictions on the redistribution. They're 
putting restrictions on their own subscriptions. In order to be a 
subscriber, you have to abide by their terms. One of those terms is not 
redistributing the source. If you choose to distribute the source, it 
simply terminates your subscription. This may not be in the spirit of 
the GPL (not that I care much), but at least from my interpretation is 
is well within the letter of the GPL. "

"hazem" points out in: 
" "T/he GPL only kicks in when you DISTRIBUTE your modifications."/

My thoughts exactly. Now suppose someone like Sveasoft wants to have 
beta testers of their product, and to become one, you pay $49. You're 
now part of the club and maybe could be considered part of the organization.

So, they send you binaries to test. Are you considered internal to the 
organization now? Or is this an external distribution? If it's the 
former, they may not have to give you the source at all. And if they do 
give you the source, they could "kick you out of the club" if you chose 
to distribute that source that is in beta form. If it's the latter, then 
what actually constitutes "in-house" vs a public distribution?"

and the reply to that is:
"Irrelevant. Any such arrangement (such as a contract of employment) is 
an additional restriction and violates the GPL. There's no such thing as 
'in-house' distribution under the GPL."

Is also worth reading.

I hope you're not too confused, I know I am.


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