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Institute for Legal Questions on Free and Open Source Software

What are the obligations involved in the internal use of software licensed under GPLv2?

If software is merely used or run, there are no associated obligations (see sec. 0 GPLv2). The right to run the software is not expressly granted by the GPLv2. This is also not necessary. The legal acquiring party is already generally entitled to do this by law: sec. 69d Para. 1 UrhG (German Copyright Law) stipulates that, in the absence of any special contractual provisions governing this matter, the actions required to properly use the computer program do not require the approval of the right holder. The actions required to run the software are therefore already legally permissible.  This legal regulation ensures that no copies of the program in economic circulation with the understanding of the rights holder may be used without entitlement.  The provision ensures that each entitled user can exploit the provided software in the provided manner.  The fact that GPLv2 does not restrict these legal rights is clearly stated in sec. 0 Para. 2 GPL:
"Activities other than copying, distribution and modification are not covered by this License; they are outside its scope. The act of running the Program is not restricted …"

In contrast to merely running software, a license agreement must be concluded according to GPLv2 to modify or create additional copies. Nevertheless, purely internal use, i.e., adapting the software to your own needs, is not associated with any obligations. The GPLv2 links all obligations to the distribution of the software; private and internal business uses remain unaffected.  The majority opinion holds that internal use exists when the software remains within a legal person (limited liability company, stock corporation). When the software is distributed to another group of companies, it must be assumed that the obligations arising from GPLv2 (→ What are the obligations involved in distributing software licensed under the GPLv2?) apply.


This FAQ is based on the FAQs of the commentary “Die GPL kommentiert und erklaert” [Discussions and explanations of the GPL] published by ifrOSS at O’Reilly.
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