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Recently, I downloaded two fairly popular pieces of FOSS software. Both are licensed under the GPL and I downloaded them direct from the project Web site links via SourceForge. I was dismayed to find that one contained embedded advertisements for a competing product while another installed lots of adware-like software on my computer and about 6 Firefox plugins of unknown purpose, each having nothing to do with the function of the software I intended to install.

I thought GPL software was non-commercial, but found that this software was "bought" by a company, apparently wanting users to migrate to their paid products. Is this permitted under the GPL?

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closed as off-topic by maxschlepzig, Gilles, Michael Homer, Ulrich Schwarz, mikeserv Aug 4 '14 at 7:39

  • This question does not appear to be about Unix or Linux within the scope defined in the help center.
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

XChat is another "odd" software. It 's licensed under GPLv2, yet the binary compiled for Windows requires a one time fee of $19.99 USD. And it's been like this since August, 2004. – Cristian Ciupitu Aug 3 '14 at 13:54
Note: this question is likely about Windows software and therefor off-topic and should possibly be migrated. Programmers.sx comes to mind. I'm still waiting for a conformation from the poster, but I would say this is almost certainly the case. – Faheem Mitha Aug 3 '14 at 15:14
@CristianCiupitu Yes, the GPL doesn't stop one doing things like that, and there are several example around like that, though I can't think of any off the top of my head right now. The point is that (in theory) you are free to build your own binary installer if you want, since the source code is available. – Faheem Mitha Aug 3 '14 at 15:16
This question appears to be off-topic because it is about license issues. – maxschlepzig Aug 3 '14 at 20:16
The license part of the question is actually irrelevant, since the people producing the malware-infected files advertised on sourceforge with ads that look like a legitimate download button have little reason to care if what they're doing is illegal. I think the important part of OP's question, even though it wasn't stated as such, is how this happened. – R.. Aug 3 '14 at 20:26

What versions of the GPL are being used here? Regardless, what you have described is, I think, permitted by the GPL. However, since under the GPL, the companies have to provide the source code for the software, so you should be able to rebuild the software without the offending crap. If they will not provide the source, they are in violation of the GPL, and you should report this. If you cannot figure out who to report this, to, the FSF would be a good place to start (see below).

If you want an expert opinion, you can write to the FSF. See FSF Licensing & Compliance Team. They know far more about licensing than most of the people here would.

However, is this question actually on-topic here? This sounds far more likely to be something that would happen on a Windows platform. What OS are you using? Is it a Unix or a Unix-like OS?

ADDENDUM: I was pointed to Sourceforget: DevShare adware controversy by a user on #fsf on freenode (somewhere else you could ask).

ADDENDUM2: Another user on #fsf wrote:

USER1: Generally, it tricks you into clicking on an ad that says “Download” (sometimes poorly translated), that downloads a fake installer containing adware. The actual software is not even always installed (if it is, GPL violations are frequent).

USER2: Oh, I thought the normal installer also installed adware.

USER2: Nope, normal installer that is downloaded after a few seconds of waiting is just fine. So, the fix is to use AdBlock, to not be tricked.

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I am not a lawyer. Take this as worth what you paid me for it. That said, I'll try to lay out my reasoning to allow you to reach your own conclusion as well.

TL;DR: Yes, legally it would appear to be allowed by the GPL.

The longer version:

The GNU GPL is a redistribution and source code usage license. Nothing more. Particularly, it never enters into the picture if you only use the software as an end user.

I'm going to use the GPL v2 as an example here, but the GPL v3 is not significantly different in this regard except for the exact language used.

I was dismayed to find that one contained embedded advertisements for a competing product while another installed lots of adware-like software on my computer and about 6 Firefox plugins of unknown purpose, each having nothing to do with the function of the software I intended to install.

As long as the source code for all GPL'd works is included, this is perfectly in line with the spirit of the license, which for our purposes is: giving you access to the source code, giving you the right to modify the source code, and giving you the right to redistribute the source code in original or modified form, for the works licensed under the GPL.

There's also nothing in the GPL that states that an installer can't install some GPL'd components and some proprietary components. Actually, that is quite expressly allowed by the so-called "mere aggregation" clause of section 2 (keep in mind that this was written in 1991, so while the technology has changed somewhat, the spirit of the text remains the same):

In addition, mere aggregation of another work not based on the Program with the Program (or with a work based on the Program) on a volume of a storage or distribution medium does not bring the other work under the scope of this License.

What the license does state is that if you build something using GPL'd source code, under the GPL, you have to release the result under the GPL. Note that you may have received the source code under a different license, in which case the GPL never enters into consideration at all.

I thought GPL software was non-commercial, but found that this software was "bought" by a company, apparently wanting users to migrate to their paid products. Is this permitted under the GPL?

With one minor exception, the GPL says nothing about paid vs gratis.

That exception is that if you distribute GPL'd software without the source code, an offer must exist to offer a copy of the source code for a nominal fee. In the GPL v2, this is in section 3.b:

(3) You may copy and distribute the Program (or a work based on it, under Section 2) in object code or executable form under the terms of Sections 1 and 2 above provided that you also do one of the following:
(b) Accompany it with a written offer, valid for at least three years, to give any third party, for a charge no more than your cost of physically performing source distribution, a complete machine-readable copy of the corresponding source code, to be distributed under the terms of Sections 1 and 2 above on a medium customarily used for software interchange; or,

(Above quote slightly reformatted to help the Markdown parser. My emphasis.)

Assuming that the copyright holder is not denying you a copy of the source code (which would be a quite different problem, because it would mean that to exercise your rights under the license they require that you comply with a license the terms of which you cannot possibly comply with in exercising your rights), you are also fully within your rights to rip out the relevant components and distribute a modified version, subject to the terms of the license.

So, yes, what you are describing is allowed by the GPL. You can certainly argue that it goes against the spirit of Free software, but there is nothing in the license that would disallow it, as long as the conditions of the license are met (in particular, full source code to GPL'd works being made available to the licensee by the distributor).

In any case, the copyright holder is not legally bound by the terms of the license. Consider that the license offers non-copyright-holders rights they otherwise would not have. The copyright holder can do anything they want, including stopping distributing the code or relicensing the work under a different license, provided in the relevant situations that all copyright holders agree to such a license change. (This is one major reason why the Free Software Foundation insists on a copyright assignment/transfer agreement for their software.) Microsoft's commercial software licenses don't spell out the right for Microsoft to distribute the software, because Microsoft already has that right irrespective of any license, because they have the copyright. The GPL is no different in that regard.

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Adware may or may not fall under the aggregation clause. Regardless, if it is free software, it would be Ok. Adware may be obnoxious, but it doesn't have to be non-free. – Faheem Mitha Aug 3 '14 at 15:09
@FaheemMitha I don't see how adware would be different from any other software from the point of view of the license. – Michael Kjörling Aug 3 '14 at 15:58
I wasn't suggesting it was different from any other software. How did you infer that? The issue is whether it is integrated into the free software or not. Probably not, I suppose, in which case, it would fall under the aggregation clause. – Faheem Mitha Aug 3 '14 at 16:10
@FaheemMitha The OP wrote, among else, "I was dismayed to find that one contained embedded advertisements" and "another installed lots of adware-like software", and asked how this related to the GPL. Particularly the latter appears to fall under the "mere aggregation" clause to me. Either way, it's possible to rip out, either going into the GPL'd source code or by not installing it (somehow). My comment was made in that context. – Michael Kjörling Aug 3 '14 at 16:32
Ok, Michael. Fair enough. I didn't mean to cause any confusion. – Faheem Mitha Aug 3 '14 at 16:34

Yes. The GPL wouldn't prevent that.

one contained embedded advertisements for a competing product

This one seems odd (unless that other product somehow benefits the developers of the free version) but is perfectly legit. Note however that they must provide you (or allow you to get) the source code for the product, so you† could compile your own copy removing out the advertisements.

† Or ask/hire someone to do that for you if you don't have the required expertise.

while another installed lots of adware-like software on my computer and about 6 Firefox plugins of unknown purpose

This seems like they were added to the program installng the binary, so in that case the license of the program you were installing would not matter.

The trick however is that if someone is publishing a GPL program in an highly debatable way, it is very likely that someone will stand up offering such program in a better form.

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You've been hit by the SourceForge malware issue. Most likely you were tricked into clicking the ad that appeared on the download page with a fake download button, rather than the real download link.

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