I'm currently making a game and want to use some textfiles (lists of names) that are covered under the GNU General Public License (or the Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License). Do I have to release my whole game under one of these licenses if I only used these (relatively small) files in my game or is it just these files I have to keep licensed like that?

If this is not permitted am I allowed to do this anyway if I choose not to actually release my code and only "hosted" this game, since it's a web game.

3 Answers 3


Assuming that the contents of the file are the result of a sufficient creative process that they fall under copyright protection1, there are two possibilities.

  1. The files are made a physical part of your program. For example, they are processed during compilation. In that case, your program is a derived work of those files and you are bound to the restrictions that the respective licenses impose on derived works. Often (and especially in the case of GPL) that is that your code must use the same license.

  2. Your program reads those files at runtime and takes some action based on what it read (possibly combined with actions taken by the user). For example, it shows the list of names to the user to select one. In this case, the license on the text file does not affect the licenses you can distribute your program under. The text files are 'mere data' and they are considered completely separate from the program processing them. (This would be similar to the relation between source code and a compiler/editor.)
    You can still distribute the file together with your program, as long as you observe the relevant conditions in the file's license and you state that different licenses apply to different parts of the distribution.

1: Where that bar exactly lies is fodder for lawyers, but it isn't that high. So, the assumption is on the safe side but probably not that far off

If you don't distribute your code, you generally don't have to bother with copyrights. The main catch here is that it can differ from license to license what the term 'distribute' means.
For example, with the Affero GPL, distribution also includes running the software on a publicly accessible server, but that is the odd one out among software licenses. Non-software licenses, such as creative commons, might have a different view on distribution.

  • 1
    I think that if the program is not compiled with the file and exploits it at runtime, by reading it from external location, the file itself should still be distributed with the application. Furthermore, the application should explicitly state that this file is distributed under a different license. May 19, 2014 at 10:46
  • You have a typo in your second possibility. ate = at. I can't edit it because the edit would be too small.
    – AliceDTRH
    May 25, 2014 at 17:31
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    @IvayloSlavov, A lot of software is covered by 'viral' licenses: if you redistribute their code you are required to license your code under the same terms. May 25, 2014 at 19:01
  • @CharlesE.Grant, indeed, this is something that I am missing and definitely something to watch for in case the distribution itself is a reason to affect your own license scheme. May 25, 2014 at 22:04

Do I have to release my whole game under one of these licenses if I only used these (relatively small) files in my game

Yes, you do.

If this is not permitted am I allowed to do this anyway if I choose not to actually release my code and only "hosted" this game, since it's a web game.

For the regular GPL, this is indeed allowed, see this answer.

  • You may want to state your assumption in that first answer, as without seeing the list we don't know if it's actually protected by copyright. I can say my recipe for cheesecake is "GPL" as well, but that won't let me sue someone for not sharing the source code of a smartphone app that included it.
    – DougM
    May 18, 2014 at 19:16
  • Ok, I'm not 100% sure about this answer. I'd like to see some references. The main reason I'm pushing this is that the "source code" is a list of names. Now, there are many different ways to package a list of names in the software. There are also ways to call out and get the list of names off the web. The big thing is: a list of names is not source code. And if it is, I would make an argument that I'm actually using the program as a whole unmodified rather than incorporating its source because in this case the "object code" is also arguably the "source code". Do you know any more about this?
    – J Trana
    May 19, 2014 at 1:57

In general, you MAY NOT use anyone else's copyright protected work without their permission, usually given in the form of a license. If you could not use that list of names in lieu of the GPL or the Creative Commons license, you may not use them without following all of the terms of the specific license.

The question of how little a usage you can use and not have penalties imposed by court is a tricky one, that may wind up getting a lawyers involved. If someone else wrote X, and you use part of X, the only way to absolutely avoid getting dragged into court is to follow exactly what their terms are.

That said, in many examples a mere mere list of names isn't a work protected by copyright. If there is something special about the list, such as a list of twenty-six names each starting with a different letter, it's probably protected. But if it's just a list, such as a random list of 5,000 common English first names, it may be no more protected than the names and numbers of an old phone book.

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