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SaaS Use of Open-source Software is not Distribution (Who GNU?)

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I recently answered a LinkedIn question about whether providing Software as a Service (SaaS) is considered a “distribution” under the open-source GNU General Public License. The question and answer (no longer available on LinkedIn) are reproduced, in slightly edited form, below.

Q. Is hosting a software as a SaaS offering considered as “distribution” under GPL / LGPL open source licenses?

A. I believe that SaaS hosting is not intended to be considered distribution.

To start, please note the following from A Quick Guide to GPLv3:

GPLv2 talks about “distribution” a lot – when you share the program with someone else, you’re distributing it. The license never says what distribution is, because the term was borrowed from United States copyright law. We expected that judges would look there for the definition. However, we later found out that copyright laws in other countries use the same word, but give it different meanings. Because of this, a judge in such a country might analyze GPLv2 differently than a judge in the United States.

GPLv3 uses a new term, “convey,” and provides a definition for that term. “Convey” has the same meaning we intended for “distribute,” but now that this is explained directly in the license, it should be easy for people everywhere to understand what we meant. There are other minor changes throughout the license that will also help ensure it is applied consistently worldwide.

Then we have the following from Section 0 of GPLv3, itself:

To “convey” a work means any kind of propagation that enables other parties to make or receive copies. Mere interaction with a user through a computer network, with no transfer of a copy, is not conveying.

I assume that your SaaS setup merely allows use of the software, without transferring a copy, thus SaaS hosting does not constitute conveying and was not intended to constitute distribution.

Dana H. Shultz, Attorney at Law +1 510-547-0545 dana [at] danashultz [dot] com
This blog does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice, please contact a lawyer directly.

  1. 2/23/2012 | 11:41 am Permalink

    Is SaaS a distribution under the Artistic license?

  2. 2/23/2012 | 1:57 pm Permalink

    @Mike C.
    The original Artistic License dose not define distribution. Accordingly, I believe there is no clearly correct answer to your question under that version.

    Artistic License 2.0, fortunately, provides a definition: “‘Distribute’ means providing a copy of the Package or making it accessible to anyone else, or in the case of a company or organization, to others outside of your company or organization.” I would consider a Package offered via SaaS to be “accessible to anyone else”, thus distributed.