I'm in the process of making a fork of GNU coreutils with a range of modifications. I'd like to release the result as an open-source project, but I'm not so much of a fan of GNU GPL as a license.

Is it possible to change the license, or provide the software under both GNU GPL v3 and CC BY-NC-SA?

  • The only time you can re-license something is when you own it. All of it. If someone contributes to your GPL project, you now have to get their permission to re-license.
    – Philip
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 16:22

2 Answers 2


No. The GPL gives no right to re-licence the copyrighted work under a different licence.

  • -1; fails to answer the second part of the question and see especially: gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#GPLModuleLicense Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 18:35
  • @mh: but that's not applicable. the asker wants to re-licence the code already covered by the GPL, not just their own additions, which is not allowed.
    – TZHX
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 18:44
  • ..."or provide the software under both GNU GPL v3 and CC BY-NC-SA?" - they can actually do that with their own source according to the gnu.org links I provided in my own answer. The entire program must be GPL, but they can dual-license the source, so long as the code under the other license is (1) their own, and (2) licensed under a GPL-compatible license. Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 18:58
  • fork of GNU coreutils with a range of modifications doesn't give the impression that their result is entirely separate. It may be that you're right, but that's not the impression that is given by the question.
    – TZHX
    Commented Sep 25, 2012 at 19:03

All of this should be read with a very large "I AM NOT A LAWYER" hat on. The very fact that you've asked this question shows that you have sufficient doubt - you should either consult a legal professional or just take the easier (and cheaper) route and live with the GPL.

That aside...

You, as the author of code, own copyright to the code you author and can license it as you wish - this is the entire legal basis that allows the GPL to exist in the first place.

How does that apply to your example? It depends on the modifications you make. If you've made some modifications here and there to existing code then the current license should stand; this should apply no matter how extensive the modifications are.

If you have added entirely new code of your own, if that code lives in it's own modules, and if it can be reasonably shown to be standalone (or at worst capable of standalone functionality), then I believe (IANAL) that you actually do have choice of license for that code, and that code alone.

Existing work to support this would include incorporation of e.g. zlib code into GPL projects. That's the level of "standalone" I'm talking about here; if you're utterly satisfied that you're watertight on this (and if you find yourself having to try prove it then you're probably not) then this should apply.

Even then, the GPL does require that the license you choose be GPL-compatible, so you can't just pick and choose and you definitely can't keep your own source closed. The FSF site maintains a list of GPL-compatible licenses, so it's wise to restrict any choice to licenses from that list.

The wording of the question "Am I required to claim a copyright on my modifications to a GPL-covered program?" in the GPL FAQ supports this reading of the situation: this is an explicit acceptance from source that changes you make can be placed in the public domain. See also "Can the US Government release improvements to a GPL-covered program?", and - quite explicitly - "If I add a module to a GPL-covered program, do I have to use the GPL as the license for my module?".

Note that in all of these cases the entire program itself must be under the GPL, there is just allowance for individual parts of it to be under different licenses. Note also that these are just FAQ answers explaining the intention of the GPL; if this were to be tested in court it would be the actual license text that was tested.

Finally, and it should be quite obvious, under no circumstances can you re-license existing GPL code; once again: it would have to be entirely new and entirely standalone.

That's a hell of a lot of "if"s for an answer, so the path of least resistance is most likely to just swallow your dislike of the GPL and use it.

  • No, I don't think he really needs to pay a lawyer to learn that you can't wantonly re-license some GPL software. Nor do I have to be a lawyer to comment on the GPL. If you did pay a lawyer, at the end of the day after hundreds of dollars, all you would have is that lawyer's personal (if professional) opinion of the GPL, which probably doesn't jive exactly with anyone else's views, so it would be sure to be contested. Welcome to the eternal gray of intellectual property.
    – Philip
    Commented Sep 26, 2012 at 16:04
  • That's not the point I'm making; the point I'm making is that if the modifications he's made involved adding his own code then there's a good chance that he will be able to choose his own license for that code, so long as that license is GPL-compatible. From there it's up to the OP to determine if his modifications fall under that category, but it's certainly not a blanket "no" situation and that is supported by material on the gnu.org site. Commented Sep 28, 2012 at 9:39

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