Beyond Thesis: Does the GPL go too far and what makes a derivative work?

After the analysis of several people (including myself) about the inclusion of GPL’ed WordPress code, I think the debate over Thesis has mostly subsided with Chris on the losing end.  However, the reason the debate was so huge has a lot more to do with what people thought Thesis was doing and why they felt it should (or should not) be subject to the GPL.  Although it turns out to be a poor test case, the fact remains that there are several heavily grey areas in the GPL, especially when dealing with dynamic, object-oriented code.  Linux module developers have been dealing with these issues for a long time and there still remains a lot of questions.  As a disclaimer once again:

  • This post now has nothing to do with Thesis. I’ll talk totally in abstract and simple examples to try and explore the GPL
  • I am a developer, not a lawyer, and I intend to look at these issues from a technical perspective.
  • The GPL is a license.  It deals with copyright law.  It defines who is allowed to copy & distribute the software (everyone).
  • The GPL doesn’t prevent you from charging for the software, but anyone you sell it to inherits the copyright and can then copy & distribute it as they see fit.
  • The GPL has been tested in court a few times. The biggest issue is that these cases have dealt really with embedded systems where they should have been providing the source, but weren’t. See Harald Welte vs. Sitecom, vs. D-Link, and BusyBox vs. Monsoon Multimedia.
  • The GPL stood up well in these tests. However, they did little to answer the fundamental question of what constitutes a derivative work of source code when dealing with dynamic & scripted code.

What is a derivative work?

Basically, anytime you copy and modify something that is copyrighted, you are producing a derivative work. Let’s start with what US copyright law defines as a derivative work: 17 U.S.C. § 101 says ”

“derivative work” is a work based upon one or more pre-existing works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.”

It seems clear and obvious that source code can produce a derivative work, the key being is it “recast, transformed, or adapted“? Please note that these are legal terms, not computer coding terms (which don’t mean the same thing). US Copyright Office Circular 14: Derivative Works goes on to say:

A typical example of a derivative work received for registration in the Copyright Office is one that is primarily a new work but incorporates some previously published material. This previously published material makes the work a derivative work under the copyright law. To be copyrightable, a derivative work must be different enough from the original to be regarded as a “new work” or must contain a substantial amount of new material. Making minor changes or additions of little substance to a preexisting work will not qualify the work as a new version for copyright purposes. The new material must be original and copyrightable in itself. Titles, short phrases, and format, for example, are not copyrightable.

So what’s clear here is that 1) You must have incorporated the original material in some way and 2) The original material must be significant (short lines of code, common tidbits, etc don’t count). This is where the Abstraction/Filtration/Comparison test comes in.

Now let’s look at what the GPL says is a derivative work. My examples will be with regards to writing plug-ins, themes, and extensions. This is where the Thesis debate was originally derived and where there still exists a lot of great area. From the GPL FAQ‘s:

If the program dynamically links plug-ins, and they make function calls to each other and share data structures, we believe they form a single program, which must be treated as an extension of both the main program and the plug-ins. This means the plug-ins must be released under the GPL or a GPL-compatible free software license, and that the terms of the GPL must be followed when those plug-ins are distributed.

If the program dynamically links plug-ins, but the communication between them is limited to invoking the ‘main’ function of the plug-in with some options and waiting for it to return, that is a borderline case.

Even the GPL writers acknowledge how grey this area is. As we’ll see, I think their interpretation already over-reaches the legal limits of copyrights. It’s also important to read the FSLC’s opinion with regard to WordPress Themes:

The PHP elements, taken together, are clearly derivative of WordPress code. The template is loaded via the include() function. Its contents are combined with the WordPress code in memory to be processed by PHP along with (and completely indistinguishable from) the rest of WordPress. The PHP code consists largely of calls to WordPress functions and sparse, minimal logic to control which WordPress functions are accessed and how many times they will be called. They are derivative of WordPress because every part of them is determined by the content of the WordPress functions they call. As works of authorship, they are designed only to be combined with WordPress into a larger work.

Some Simple Test Cases

So let’s look at some simple code examples and see where things break down. I’ll provide three pieces of code:

Able has written:

[sourcecode language=”ruby”]
#Able has released this code under the GPL
class Foo
def perform_work
puts "Able’s Foo has performed work"

Baker has written:

[sourcecode language=”ruby”]
#Baker has licensed this privately and very strictly
class Foo
def perform_work
puts "Baker’s Foo has performed work"

Charlie has written a

[sourcecode language=”ruby”]
class BigFoo < Foo
def do_it_all
perform_work #Who’s work?

First a sticking point: WordPress calls include() to include a theme. My example has the supposedly derivative work calling the dependency. I don’t believe the flipflop is relevant because the GPL FAQs use the same answer for both scenarios. I’ve done it this way for simplicity and ease-of-understanding.

So is Charlie’s work derivative of Able’s? It’s dependent on either Able’s or Baker’s to be sure. but derivative?
The key argument for themes is “They are derivative of WordPress because every part of them is determined by the content of the WordPress functions they call”. This is almost entirely the definition of inspiration. What seems to matter is “Did Charlie refer to Able’s code or Baker’s code when developing his own code?”. However, I believe this argument breaks down as well.


When you’re talking about a creative work, inspiration is a key factor. Fan fiction runs up against this wall. Fan fiction is derivative because someone else’s intellectual property (their characters, settings, plot lines, etc) have been used to create your work. Fan fic has been consistently found to be derivative and subject to copyright claims. But there is a very big difference between Charlie’s work and a piece of fan fiction. When you sell a fan-fic book, the original author’s characters are actually incorporated into what you’re selling. However, Charlie’s work does not significantly incorporate any bits of Able’s code, at least at the time of distribution. The key is that the in-memory combination occurs with the end user, who is not distributing ANY code and therefore is not required by the GPL to do anything. What you incorporate into your distribution is really the issue, not inspiration.


This becomes a major distinction. Charlie is not selling or distributing Able’s source, only his own. The incorporation must happen at the time of distribution. With non-compiled source code, the incorporation happens with the end user when they run the software. So here is a more apt analogy: Monopoly the board game. Let’s say I create my own board for a board game, with its own set of rules and no shared ideas (beyond those common to all board games, such as having a big card board piece on which you play). Now I wish to sell this board and only the board. In order to use my board game, I instruct you the end user to use the pieces from a Monopoly game because they work very well with my game. My game was even designed with using these exact pieces in mind (I was inspired by Monopoly pieces, although other pieces COULD work…that’s totally up to the people playing). However, you must obtain the Monopoly game on your own. My board game will not work without Monopoly pieces, so it is dependent but not derivative. The two pieces are combined at someone’s kitchen table to produce the final product. So it is clear that having distributed only my own original work, regardless of where my inspiration came from, no copyright is inherited from the original product.


So Charlie’s code contains no code from Able. Charlie wrote it all himself. Copyright law seems to stop right there. Having failed a test for substantial similarity and a lack of distribution of anything under the GPL, the GPL can exert no copyright over Charlie’s code. In fact, this is a copyright issue that has been settled many times. In Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. v. Nintendo of America, Inc., or the GameGenie case, the court decided that interoperability does not create a derivative work. Much like our coding examples and WordPress themes, the GameGenie wouldn’t work without a Nintendo. It was once again clearly dependent, but not derivative. This argument becomes even clearer when we refer only to binaries.


I think in the end it’s clear that the GPL over-reaches in its determination of what constitutes a derivative work. This is where the “infectious” moniker comes from. It tries to ‘claim’ copyright over completely original works that it has no authority over. My examples deal with the very precise cases of dynamic scripting (non-compiled) code, distributed via source only, where no shared code exists between the GPL’ed and non-GPL’ed product, so please be cautious about reading into the too much with regards to things like Linux Kernel Modules or the like. Finally, I’m really enjoying the overall debate (I do love the GPL), and the great attitude everyone I’ve talked to (on both sides) has taken. Let’s continue that, for the good of all OSS.