Is it legal to re-use web design from a GNU public license project?


I found a web design layout that I like, and it is from a GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE open source project.

Will I run into any legal issues here?

I know I should talk to a lawyer, but just curious as to others feedback on this.

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asked Sep 22 '10 at 03:51
Un Startup
162 points
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2 Answers


Disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, and this is not qualified legal advice. Use at your own risk.

Your first step is to figure out which license the website itself is under. It may be different from the software; or there may be no explicit license for the website (HTML, CSS, JS etc) itself.

If the website is licensed under the GPL version 2, then you can freely use the design, HTML, CSS and Javascript on your own site. But you must:

  • Make a version of your (modified) website codebase available for download free of charge.
  • Display the GPL version 2 license on your site, so that people can see that the site is licensed under the GPL 2.
  • You must not run website code and your own application code in the same memory space (i.e. on the same PHP application server). If you do, your own application must also be GPL 2 licensed.

Nota bene: The above is valid if static or dynamic linking is the criteria for determining whether your own code is a derived work or not. Opinions differ. If the codebase is licensed under the GPL version 3, the terms are stricter and your own code will be more likely to also fall under the GPL version 3. See this nice overview of the GPL version 2 and 3.

My personal advice: Either stay away from GPL licensed software, or pay the original author for a copy of the work under another, closed-source license. The original author can always license the work to you under another license, and in fact many will do so for a modest payment. Using GPL code for commercial uses is tricky; it's IMHO easier to either keep away from GPL code or obtain it under a non-copyleft license.

answered Sep 22 '10 at 04:49
Jesper Mortensen
15,292 points
  • doesn't the 'make my version available for download' come into play if I redistribute my software? e.g. phpbb is GNU, that doesn't mean I can go to anyone running phpbb to give me their source can it? – Un Startup 14 years ago
  • If phpbb is licensed under the GPL, then you can go to *phpbb* and get a copy of the code. You can also insist that anyone shipping phpbb on a CD, as part of an appliance (ready-to-work server such as a NAS, firewall, wireless AP) has a version for download. Whether just putting phpbb on a webserver and serving HTML pages from phpbb is "redistribution" is debated. One common view is that if the web pages have Javascript in them, or if the web pages carry user data state, then it is redistribution and the copyleft provision applies. I'm not aware of this having ever been tested in court though. – Jesper Mortensen 14 years ago
  • @UnStartup: One of the reasons why I recommend to keep clear of GPL licensed content is that the GPL is ... well, calling it *vague* is perhaps too harsh, but it is certainly not crystal-clear either. See the sections "Covered Works" and "ASP" here: Mortensen 14 years ago
  • The GPL is safe for stuff running on your own servers, because the license only covers distribution. Javascript running on your visitors browsers would be covered by the GPL, but PHP or ASP wouldn't be. Design (HTML+CSS+images, I assume) is a little trickier. – T Ri G 13 years ago


Website design and copy is copyrighted, which is separate from the licensing stuff of the software in question.

So no, you cannot steal it.

However if you ask they might very well say "Sure, take it!" So I'd ask!

answered Sep 22 '10 at 04:16
16,231 points
  • but the web design comes with the software in downloadable form, asking is best I agree. – Un Startup 14 years ago

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