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Top 5 myths of GPLv3 dispelled (part 1)

Now that the "Final Draft" of the GNU General Public License version 3 (GPLv3) is out and we're 30 days away from the official published version, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of the least well understood provisions in the license. These are things you might have heard and accepted, but the truth may be different from what you believe. The first one is: You can't sell GPLv3 software.
Written by Ed Burnette, Contributor on

Now that the "Final Draft" of the GNU General Public License version 3 (GPLv3) is out and we're 30 days away from the official published version, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of the least well understood provisions in the license. These are things you might have heard and accepted, but the truth may be different from what you believe.

Disclaimer: This information was culled from a variety of sources, including the GPLv3 web site, interviews with experts involved in the process, and analysis from various industry watchers. However this isn't intended as legal advice.

Myth 1: You can't sell GPLv3 software.

False. Technically speaking, you've always been able to "sell" GPL software. GPLv3 spells this out more clearly than previous versions however. The Preamble in the final draft says (my emphasis):

Our General Public Licenses are designed to make sure that you have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for them if you wish) ...

So you can charge for copies of software that you distribute (note the careful wording here).

"Hey," you may be asking, "didn't you say just the opposite in an older column?". Not exactly. I'll save you the trouble of looking it up - check out this thread from 2006. To paraphrase our illustrious former president Clinton, "It depends on you mean by 'sell'."

If you come from a traditional proprietary software background like many developers, the verb "to sell" means something a little different than it does to regular people. It means something like "to charge a fee for a license to run". That you cannot do under the GPL. So in that sense, you can't "sell" the software, but in the usual sense of exchanging money for goods, you can. If you can find a buyer, that is.

Practically speaking, it's hard to get anyone to pay you for GPL software, because other people can always undercut your price, down to $0. That's because section 2 of GPLv3 (final draft) says:

This License explicitly affirms your unlimited permission to run the unmodified Program.

and section 10 says:

...you may not impose a license fee, royalty, or other charge for exercise of rights granted under this License...

Can you sell apples for $1 each if the guy standing next to you is giving them away? Probably not.

That's not to say you can't make money off GPL software - plenty of people have done that - you just have to be a little clever about it and add some value for your customers to make them feel like they're getting their money's worth. Using the apple analogy, maybe for that $1 you will guarantee freshness (warranty), help them with apple recipes (service), gift wrap it (packaging), or automatically deliver new ones when they run out (updates).

So to summarize, you can sell GPL software, but you can't force people to pay you for it. Users don't have to agree to any license to run the software let alone pay anyone for the privilege. It's a subtle point, but one that anyone hoping to make a living from GPL software needs to understand.

Future installments will explore and dispel other GPLv3 myths; so stay tuned.

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