We are currently developing a commercial application. We found some images(icons) which are under GNU/GPL license.

I'm not an expert in this kind of things, but I was wondering if it is legal to use the image inside our commercial application(which is definitely not under GNU/GPL license).

For what I read here, some obligation are induced when we modify the file. But in our case, we use it in a bigger application.


  1. Is it legal to use it?
  2. Is there something we should absolutely do?(Like indication in the license of our application that some parts are under GPL/GNU? Or indicate where this icon is coming from?)

4 Answers 4


Is it legal to use it?

Well, of course it is.

Is there something we should absolutely do?(Like indication in the license of our application that some parts are under GPL/GNU? Or indicate where this icon is coming from?)

I kind of find it strange that the images aren't licensed under a more media friendly license, such as Creative Commons licenses, which are kind of intended for that stuff. The GPL is more intended for source code.

By using the image, you'd have to force your entire application under the GPL. This is what the GPL's copyleft clause is known for. I'm not sure you would like to do that, as your entire application would have to be licensed under the GPL.

Honestly, I would try to avoid the GPL anywhere you can. If you can find a similar icon under Creative Commons licenses, you'd be in a much better position.

  • Any software running on Linux will make use of libraries under GPL, so the asserting in this answer is plainly wrong, the entire application does not have to be GPLed just because refernces are made to GPLed material. The test is really if your application would work if you had a non-GPLed version of same -- such to show that the app is independent work of the GPLed material or whether it was intertwined -- and for a image I would assume this to be the case.
    – Soren
    Jan 18, 2016 at 22:42
  • @Soren Yes, but Linux also has a "System Library" exception, which permits linking to the GPLed system libraries, while not requiring your libraries to also be under the GPL. That test doesn't apply, by linking to the GPL library, you're linking to it, and the GPLs copyleft clause mandates that your code be licensed under the GPL as well.
    – Zizouz212
    Jan 18, 2016 at 22:46
  • The "System Library" exception is why you are wrong -- nobody need a special license to make a "System Library" -- the image can easily be put in a library, and as long as it is separated from the non-GPLed he should be fine, since he is not producing derivative works.
    – Soren
    Jan 18, 2016 at 22:51

You must follow the terms of the GPL whenever you distribute the file, whether you modify it or not. The file is copyright and you infringe the copyright holder's rights if you distribute it other than under the terms of the GPL.

I'm not going to attempt to summarize the terms of the GPL here, as I don't want to get it wrong and summaries are widely available elsewhere.

  • Uhhh... Almost, but not quite. Following terms is a given, but you seem to leave behind one of the viral nature aspects of the GPL, which is crucial to the development of the OPs application.
    – Zizouz212
    Jan 18, 2016 at 22:18
  • GPL is only "viral" if you entangle the GPLed material into the application in a way where it it become inseparable.
    – Soren
    Jan 18, 2016 at 22:45

Since nobody seems to have even touched on this detail but this is popping up in search results...

I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding, based on what I've read in free game development resource communities, is that, as long as you don't combine the image and non-GPLed stuff in the same file, it counts as aggregating the image and code, not making one a derivative work of the other.

(The most common context I've seen this in was people wondering whether it was legal to use GPLed code and CC-BY-SA art assets in the same project.)

In other words, as long as your GPLed image is a separate file from your non-GPLed stuff, it's legal for the same reason that it's legal to distribute a magazine CD or DVD containing both GPLed programs and programs under GPL-incompatible EULAs, even if you have a pretty Autorun launcher menu that can start either one.

Aside from that, you'll want to include proper attribution in your About dialog, manual, or wherever your standard place for that is.

(A good rule of thumb is to include the work's name, creator's name, a link to wherever the version you are using was originally posted, and a mention of the license under which you're using it. (ie. "GNU GPL 2.0-only", "GNU GPL 2.0-or-later", "GNU GPL 3.0-only", "GNU GPL 3.0-or-later", etc.))


Without any serious precautions, including these files means that you have to publish your complete application under the GPL license.

With some serious precautions, including these files means that you can be taken to court for copyright infringement, and you may win or you may lose, but it will cost you. And if this becomes public, it will damage your reputation.

The very simple method is to either contact the copyright holder and offer them some money for a license that allows you to include these images, if you want these images and no others, or to go to a site that specialises in providing icons or images for that kind of purposes. Either way is likely cheaper than talking to a lawyer about this for an hour.

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