How To Break The GPL

John Cowan jcowan at
Mon Mar 6 19:26:00 UTC 2000

"Rod Dixon, J.D., LL.M." wrote:

> Well, it is obvious why this hypo does not quite work. Assuming, for the
> sake of argument, that Alice's derivative work is a french translation of
> Trent's article

For that case, the trick I have in mind won't work, because a translation
into another language shares no bits with the original.  But that isn't
parallel to the hypothetical I have in mind.

> > Instead of sending him a marked-up copy, she tells him to get Trent's
> > article himself and then mark it up according to her instructions.

> This would be an absloute no-no, if you mean Alice instructs others how to
> infringe Trent's copyright or breach Trent's GPL.

Not at all.  Here's a still more concrete case.  Trent publishes the document T:
"RMS supports the GNU GPL" under the GPL.  (Assume arguendo this is a copyrightable
document, though it probably is not.  Also ignore defamation issues.)  Now watch the
following steps.

1)	Alice alters her copy of the document by substituting "MPL" for "GNU GPL".
	This is a derivative work T'; the GPL allows its creation.

2)	Alice now creates the following document A:  "In Trent's document T,
	substitute 'MPL' for 'GNU GPL'".  This work depends on Trent's document to be
	intelligible, but is not technically a derivative work.  Alice may
	distribute this work under any restrictive license she pleases.

3)	Bob receives Alice's document A and applies what it says to Trent's
	document T.  He now has a copy of T' without Alice having distributed
	either T or T'.  The GPL permits the creation of this derivative work.
	Bob does not distribute T' either, so neither he nor Alice is required
	to license A under the GPL.

> Hmm... for this hypo I do not think this works. Alice's instructions on how
> to make a derivative work out of Trent's article does not sound like
> copyrightable subject matter.

Depends on how much work Alice does.  The changes may introduce substantial new
content, unlike the fully-detailed hypo above.  For example, Alice's
instructions may add a whole new chapter to an existing GPLed book.

> Even if it is, if Alice's intstructions
> induces Bob to infringe or breach an agreement, then Alice has an entirely
> different set of problems than we have discussed so far.

What breach?  Bob is, from Trent's viewpoint, modifying Trent's work for his own use,
which the GPL permits, using Alice's proprietary additions.

> Well, the problem with the hypo is that it ends too soon. Bob may have to
> make his translation available to Trent even if he does not distribute it
> according to the GNU GPL. In doing so, Alice is out of business.

As far as I can tell, the GNU GPL does not compel distribution to anyone,
not even the copyright owner.  Various corporate licenses do compel
distribution, though.

> Consequently, even if Alice is able to slide through all of the trap doors
> of the GPL (and you may be exactly right that she may), there is little
> incentive for doing so. She will not make money. As for software, Alice MAY
> get away with this, but Bob may have to give up her code when he adds his
> derivative work to Trent's original project.

In this case, Bob is not a contributor, merely a user of Alice's program.
(He thinks of it as "Alice's program" even though it includes Trent's GPLed
library.)  Alice's installation routines link in Trent's library, but they
are performed *by Bob* even though written by Alice.  Bob is the creator
of the derivative work Alice+Trent.


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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