How To Break The GPL

Rod Dixon, J.D., LL.M. rod at
Fri Mar 3 21:10:28 UTC 2000

Two points:

1. The issue raised may be breach of the terms of a license (Trent's GPL)
rather than a copyright infringement.

2. Alice is breaching the terms of the GPL. There is no doubt that Trent has
a remedy. Moreover, he could extract a royalty fee from Alice, if he so


> -----Original Message-----
> From: cowan at
> [mailto:cowan at]On Behalf Of John Cowan
> Sent: Friday, March 03, 2000 10:46 AM
> To: license-discuss at
> Subject: How To Break The GPL
> This is offered in the spirit of "How To Make Atomic Bombs", and does
> *not* mean that the author approves of the conduct described herein.
> A close reading of the GPL suggests the following way to distribute
> unfree software that contains GPL-specific components.
> 1.  Alice designs, debugs, and tests (but does not distribute)
>     commercial software that uses a GPLed library that is copyrighted
>     by Trent and publicly available from Trent's homepage.
> 2.  Alice distributes a compiled version of her code *only* to her
>     paying customer, Bob, under a restrictive end-user license agreement.
>     Trent's library is not included.
> 3.  Alice sends instructions (in English, sh, or make) that cause Bob's
>     system to download Trent's library from its homepage and link it with
>     Alice's modules.
> Now who has violated Trent's copyright?  Not Alice: she did not modify or
> distribute Trent's work.  Not Bob: he cannot distribute the executable
> version because of Alice's license.  Bob might be said to have
> made a derivative
> work, but only in the sense that Bob would make a derivative of a book by
> Trent by writing marginal notes in a copy that he owns, a
> perfectly legitimate
> behavior.  Nor would it matter if Bob marked up the book in accordance
> with instructions sent him by Alice.  (If Bob tried to duplicate
> and sell the
> marked-up book, Trent's copyright *would* be violated, but he doesn't.)
> I would very much like to hear that there is a flaw in this logic.  If so,
> where is it?
> --
> Schlingt dreifach einen Kreis vom dies! || John Cowan
> <jcowan at>
> Schliesst euer Aug vor heiliger Schau,  ||
> Denn er genoss vom Honig-Tau,           ||
> Und trank die Milch vom Paradies.            -- Coleridge (tr. Politzer)

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