SaaS vs local distribution and GPL implications


Let's say our theoretical company has a SaaS product for which we charge $xx per month. The product is entirely web based and the backend includes GPL code.

As I understand it, since our product is not actually "distributed" it is not bound by the GPL license.

However, let's say some of our big clients are willing to pay top dollar for a local deployment that they can run within their own intranet. We are in a position to do that for them. Perhaps by preloading our product on a server workstation and physically shipping it to the client.

Would GPL apply to this latter arrangement? Ie- would we have to provide the entire source code for our product?

Saas Licensing GPL

asked Oct 3 '11 at 06:06
Mr. Schwabe
147 points

2 Answers


GPL would still apply in your first case, it is just that the terms of it don't affect you very much.

The terms of GPL are that if you distribute the code, you have to make it freely available for others to build on - just as you have. In the second case, you will legally have to release your source code and make it freely available.

It's the price you pay for free access to some awesome software.

Companies are (slowly) starting to accept the model of SaaS, and in some cases actually prefer it. It is very likely that issues you face now with companies wanting a local deployment will not be there in a few years time.

answered Oct 3 '11 at 06:48
John Gb
384 points
  • Thanks for the detailed answer - this is helpful validation. Regarding local deployment however - I think there will always be a demand for certain products to be hosted locally. Particularly when its' involving the most sensitive data a company owns. So it would be nice to find a way to offer a local deployment for clients - without necessarily sharing the entire source code of the product with the world. – Mr. Schwabe 12 years ago
  • Ask author of the software to license it to you in non-GPL license. – Romaninsh 12 years ago
  • It isn't clear to me whether a local deployment is a "distribution". If a company places a computer it owns at a customer's site and the customer doesn't have a password to access the computer is that a distribution? The GPL doesn't define "distribution" well and it is not a term that is generally used in copyright law so there is no clear answer. – Kekito 12 years ago


Unfortunately GPL means that you must pass the code along with your software. The company who received it can then distribute it further. You might try to sign an agreement to prevent this, but it would be the breach of GPL: The best thing I can think of would be:

  • Extract GPL code from your code base
  • Write instructions for your client on how to install GPL product then integrate it with your commercial code.
  • Software running on Linux does not need to be GPL. Plugin running on wordpress does not need to be GPL. Interpretations here may vary.
  • You can build the solution on your client's behalf by combining components.

Depending on the type of your software this might or might not work.

answered Oct 4 '11 at 08:18
253 points
  • Cool, good thinking - thanks for the insights. – Mr. Schwabe 12 years ago

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