Since Git is licensed under GPLv2, and, to my understanding, GitHub interacts with Git, shouldn't the whole GitHub codebase be open-sourced in a GPL-compatible license?

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    Can you please point to the specific paragraph in the GPL which talks about interacting? Hint: there isn't one. Jan 25, 2017 at 20:56
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    @JörgWMittag: confusion to someone who isn't well versed in the subject over whether network access constitutes 'releasing' or propagating isn't unreasonable. Jan 25, 2017 at 20:59
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    It's simple: github are not handing you anyone's licensed work -- or rather, to whatever extent they do do that, they follow the license terms. Can you point to some work "fixed in a tangible medium" that they hand you that contains work they licensed from others under the GPL?
    – jthill
    Jan 26, 2017 at 0:15
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    @TobiasKienzler it should be noted that "git" is two separate but related things - firstly its a standard defining a particular method of source code versioning, and secondly its a reference implementation of that standard. Both things have the same name - git. Only one of those things can be licensed under the GPL, AGPL etc - if you create your own implementation from the standard, you can license it any way you want and the creators of the standards or reference implementation have no leg to stand on with regard to your code.
    – Moo
    Jan 26, 2017 at 12:09
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    @TobiasKienzler the recent Oracle-Google court case over the Java spec basically means there is no license you can use to prevent a reimplementation of the standard.
    – Moo
    Jan 26, 2017 at 12:47

3 Answers 3


3 reasons why:

  1. According to the terms of the GPL, people accessing GitHub via the web is not considered releasing (or propagating in GPLv3 terms), and so GitHub is not required to share their source code. If GitHub was to sell a version of their service (which they might do, I haven't bothered to look) where they send you their software and you run an instance of GitHub internally on your own network, then they might be required to also ship the source code, unless:

  2. GitHub may very well be accessing the Git client through command-line invocations, in which case that is considered communicating "at arms-length", and thus does not make GitHub a derivative work and therefore not subject to the requirements of the GPL.

  3. Additionally, GitHub may very well not even be using the Git software and has written their own core "git implementation" and has re-implemented its interfaces to maintain compatibility, in which case again the GPL's requirements would not come into play.

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    Actually, AFAIK, GitHub has their own implementation of Git, so the license of Linus Torvald's implementation of Git is irrelevant anyway. Jan 25, 2017 at 21:00
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    Github does release their software. enterprise.github.com
    – Bryan Chen
    Jan 26, 2017 at 1:36
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    "3) Additionally, GitHub may very well not even be using the Git software and has written their own core "git implementation" and has re-implemented its interfaces to maintain compatibility, in which case again the GPL's requirements would not come into play." I think @whatsisname was right because Github uses libgit2. links: libgit2.github.com, source: github.com/libgit2/libgit2
    – andytime
    Jan 26, 2017 at 2:40
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    It's important to note that LibGit2 is licensed under GPL2 with linking exception.
    – RubberDuck
    Jan 26, 2017 at 10:39
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    @RubberDuck: It's important to note that libGit2 is owned by github and thus they don't need a license to use it therefore they don't need to comply with whatever it's licensed under. Even if one were to argue with that they, as the owner of libgit2, can license it to themselves under a custom license.
    – slebetman
    Jan 26, 2017 at 14:43

In addition to the other answers, I would add that the FSF's views on when two cooperating programs form a single work are quite vague:

Furthermore, these views have never been tested in court, except in Germany:

It's an ongoing case but so far the judge has opined that one of the key considerations listed by the FSF for determining whether two programs form a single work, namely, sharing the same address space, has no relevance to (German) copyright law. It should be noted that the FSF is not involved in the lawsuit but the litigating party has been advocating for the FSF view on aggregation/derivation.

So, for persons writing the next Github, I would say, don't assume you are on the wrong side of the law when the FSF says you are (and vice versa).

  • I'd have to presume it's infrequency in court owes to it being something that can't be enforced. I remember a talk of Stallman were he mentioned some technology company DRM'ing software on a disk and the software was build with copy-left Free components on the disk. Stallman himself in the presentation noted that the vendor never faced legal action against that.
    – Lan
    Jan 26, 2017 at 12:16
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    @Lan Well, DRM is a separate issue which comes into play only with the newer GPLv3 and not with the older GPLv2. By any interpretation of GPLv2, a vendor is in their right to supply you with the source for GPLv2 copyleft components without giving you any practical way to execute modifications on their proprietary hardware. Jan 26, 2017 at 18:39
  • @Lan Don't assume that. A view at least as plausible, looking at the enforcement history, is that violators facing legal action typically get into compliance. Whether it can be enforced is not the same as whether someone takes the time to do so, and Busybox is in an interesting spot where it's very likely to be included in non-compliant products and the author is up for a challenge. Jan 26, 2017 at 21:45
  • @chrylis Not sure which author of BusyBox you mean. Rob Landley started the lawsuits but he was disgusted by the results, and eventually left BusyBox to work on ToyBox (which avoids GPL entirely by being BSD licensed): brownrudnick.com/blog/emerging-technologies/…. Basically, rather than stopping at getting any modifications to BusyBox made public (there never were any), the situation was abused to demand money for financing future lawsuits and the opening up of proprietary components completely unrelated by BusyBox by any legal theory. Sad. Simply sad. Jan 26, 2017 at 22:38
  • Moreover, the FSF explanations of what they mean by "linking" make no technical sense. For example anyone who uses Java knows that the sentence "If modules are designed to run linked together in a shared address space, that almost surely means combining them into one program." is nonsense. Jan 27, 2017 at 9:09

GitHub doesn't use Git. They use their own implementation, libgit2, which is released under the GPLv2 with Linking Exception. Therefore, it is not necessary for GitHub to release the source code to comply with the license.

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