If a company sells a device containing GPL licensed code they need to provide the source code when asked.

Does this apply to private sales, e.g. if I sell an used device that I bought on ebay, would I need to supply the source code when asked?

If I don't have the source code and the company that I bought the device from went out of business, resulting in me not having any way of getting the source code, does this legaly prohibit me from selling the device since I cannot provide the source code?

How about if I don't know that the device contains GPL licensed code? Does that change anything?

1 Answer 1


Copyright law applies to copying. If you buy an item from eBay, and sell it on to someone else, no code has been copied.m by you. Therefore you have no obligations. Don’t make copies of the code in the device, because that can create obligations for you.

With GPL licensed code, depending on what the person creating copies and distributing them did, either the software was accompanied by source code (and the receiver has no further rights to receive the source code), or everybody has the right to a copy of the source code for a reasonable payment, with no need to buy anything.

Saying this again to address comments: As long as you don't make any copies, the GPL license doesn't affect you at all. (Also, if you only make copies that are allowed by your laws, then the GPL license doesn't affect you). If you buy then sell an item, without making any copies of any software, then GPL doesn't affect you. You can quote the license terms as much as you like, but the GPL is a license, and the license terms determine whether you are allowed to make copies or not. Nothing else.

Compare this to proprietary software: You are only allowed to make copies that your law allows, and usually you can't get permission to make more copies. Same as with GPL licensed software, if you buy an item and sell it again, without copying any software inside it, it doesn't matter what proprietary software is in there. You can buy and sell your smart phone for example, which contains tons and tons of proprietary and non-proprietary software.

  • I believe this is incorrect. Selling an item is distribution, a right you gain only by agreeing to the gpl, therefore must be done under the terms of the gpl. Also, as well as the 2 options you mention, you could have received an offer to access the code, and not taken up that offer. If the original company has gone out of business it is likely that this "offer" is no longer available.
    – Dave
    Mar 3, 2020 at 13:40
  • @Dave GPL is all about copyright. It is a license that literally says "you are allowed to make copies if you are following certain rules", and as a consequence, if you don't follow these rules then you are not allowed to make copies". But since you are selling the item without making copies the GPL doesn't affect you in any way. It says you are not allowed to make copies, and you are not making copies.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 4, 2020 at 21:23
  • if you distribute copies of such a program, whether gratis or for a fee, you must pass on to the recipients the same freedoms that you received. You must make sure that they, too, receive or can get the source code. And you must show them these terms so they know their rights. GPL, gnu.org/licenses/gpl-3.0.en.html
    – Dave
    Mar 5, 2020 at 10:06
  • @Dave Absolutely, completely missing the point. Nobody can force you to do these things. What's the consequence if you don't? You are not allowed to make copies of the software (unless allowed by copyright law). But you aren't making copies. So what are the consequences? Nil. Nada. Zilch.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 5, 2020 at 22:28
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    "Selling an item is distribution." No, it's not. The distribution right is extinguished once a copy is lawfully made for distribution by someone authorized by the copyright holder to make such a copy. You can't sell an item until the copy is already made, so as long as the copy was lawfully made, there is no distribution right left by the time you get to selling. See Capital Records, LLC v. ReDigi, Inc. Mar 6, 2020 at 1:28

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