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I recently found software containing only binaries (no access to source code) being distributed and dual-licensed under the GPL3 (https://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-3.0.en.html) and MIT (https://opensource.org/licenses/MIT).

These two licenses tend to be applied to open-source software, so I am wondering whether it is legal to apply either of them to closed-source software (program executables/binaries, also referred to as object-code) without being obligated to provide the source code?

It is worth noting that the question is related to the original creator of the software applying the license to their own work, not someone creating a 'fork' of a work that is already distributed with one of these licenses.

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  • Clarify with the author what the license is. If he's distributing it as GPL, then ask him "where's the source code, then?" As the author, he's allowed to distribute it under multiple licenses.
    – Brandin
    Aug 19, 2022 at 11:03

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In principle, yes. Remember that the copyright holder is not bound in any way by this license (because the only bad thing that can happen to you is that the copyright holder sues you - so assuming they are not schizophrenic, the copyright holder can do what they want).

If you can't manage to lay your hands on the source code, then you can't make copies without violating the GPL license (legal reasons). And you can't make modified versions because you need the source code for that as well (technical reasons). So if the copyright holder doesn't give you the source code then the GPL license is quite useless to you. But it's totally legal to give you a license that you can't use.

But if everyone else does it, because it is a breach of the license, the copyright holder can sue them. You can't, but you can tell the copyright holder. There's the possibility for example that I paid the copyright holder $10,000 for permission to use the code without following the GPL license. Then I could do exactly what you saw. It would be nice of me to give you a link to a place where you can get the source code (my code might be modified, and since the copyright holder took my money in exchange for permission, I am allowed to keep my own source code to myself).

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  • Interesting. But in the case of either MIT and GPL, would end-users be allowed to de-compile and/or reverse engineer the software and thus legally distribute a derivative that is as close to the original's source code as can be?
    – xabase6400
    Aug 18, 2022 at 17:47
  • @xabase6400 For the question about decompiling GPL source code, see this Q&A: opensource.stackexchange.com/questions/7716/… The summary answer is "no" you are not allowed to redistribute decompiled GPL source code. GPL itself says that to redistribute it, you must provide the source code, defined as the "preferred form of the work for making modifications to it". A decompiled output does not correspond to that description.
    – Brandin
    Aug 19, 2022 at 10:58
  • @Brandin: If someone distributes a work without conveying the most suitable form for making modifications to it among those forms the person possess, that would be in violation of the license, but in some cases a decompiled binary might in fact be the best form the person possesses.
    – supercat
    Nov 2, 2022 at 20:50
  • @supercat It would be a violation of the license. In this case, that would allow the copyright holder to sue themselves, which they are not going to do. Yes, GPL license by the copyright holder without the source code is stupid and useless, but the copyright holder is allowed to give you a stupid and useless license. The whole question was: Is it legal for the copyright holder to do something stupid and useless? Answer: Yes, it is.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 11, 2023 at 1:25

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