If I sell a bit of GPL'ed software I am required to provide source code, or an offer of same. This is based on the "distribution" clause of the GPL. According to this question, if I sell GPL'ed software pre-installed on a device I am not bound by these restrictions. I am interested in the connotations of this, and would like to know which of the following activities would count as distribution so that the "must provide source code" provision of the GPL is required:

  1. I as a natural person purchase an android phone and re-sell it unchanged (from the linked question, this seems to not count as distribution)
  2. As 1, but I install a 3rd party GPL application (say AdAway)
  3. As 1, but I install a 3rd party GPL OS (say Tizen)
  4. As 2 or 3, but I edit the 3rd party software before installation
  5. As 2, but I put some proprietary IP on the phone (say Dark side of the moon by Pink Floyd)
  6. As 1, but I am an independent for profit company
  7. As 1, but I am wholly owned subsidiary of the original seller
  8. As any of the above, but I am selling a hard disk drive not a phone
  • Ownership of copyright in software is one thing - ie ownership. "GPL'd" is a reference to a licence granted to use the software - ie a contract which grants a licence to use the copyright in some way. They're two different things. One's a property right, the other is a contract which relates to that that property right. Your question actually doesn't make sense. Re your Q1: you're not distributing anything - the legal entity that put the GPL code on the phone in the first place is the one that needs the licence. As a user of the phone, you're just a user of the GPL code
    – lellis
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 17:56

1 Answer 1


That has been explained in another question: Copyright applies if you copy and doesn’t apply if you don’t copy. If you don’t copy you can do what you like. If you copy it must be allowed by law, or you must have a license which includes following the terms of the license.

Apply these principles to all your questions.

  • To be clear, none of my situations require copying at the point of sale, and all copies were lawfully made. However this seems to defeat the point of the GPL, as they result in people receiving object code with no ability to view or edit the code. However, if this is really the case I can think of some business models that would be possible.
    – Dave
    Commented Mar 6, 2020 at 15:42
  • I am not sure if copyright only applies to copying. E.g. if you buy a music CD, the license granted to you by buying it might allow you to play the CD in your home, but it often does not allow you to play the music on the CD at a large event or over the radio. There are seperate licenses for that. Neither of these scenarios involve any copying, but still it is covered by copyright. Copyright might even prohibit you from singing the song yourself in a public space (as e.g. evidenced by all those copyright lawsuites about "Happy Birthday").
    – Dakkaron
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 10:09
  • @Dakkaron Reperforming a song is a sort of a copy (a reproduction), as is playing the song publicly. But just giving the medium (the CD) to someone else is not copying.
    – Brandin
    Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 15:44
  • @Brandin But if reperforming a song is a sort of copy (by roughly replicating the recording with non-technical means), wouldn't playing the CD also be a copy (by exactly replicating the recording with technical means)? That would mean, the copyright owner cannot regulate you reselling the physical copy of the CD but could regulate the usage of the CD? So you coud, e.g. say, only the original buyer has the right to play the CD. That is exactly what happens with all sorts of software. And that should apply to GPL as well.
    – Dakkaron
    Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 22:55

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