I would say no, because a MATLAB licence is required to run the software, but this point isn't completely clear to me.

EDIT: This was a terminology question, not a request for legal advice.

  • 3
    A GPL libary is GPL. Doesn't mater what it runs on.You can run GPL software on Windows. Doesn't mean Microsoft owns it. Nov 27, 2018 at 18:40
  • 1
    @candied_orange: after reading the question three times, I think that's not what the OP was asking. The question may be interpreted as: does the term "free software" exclusively depend on the license, or does it require the required platform to be free as well?
    – Doc Brown
    Nov 27, 2018 at 18:59
  • @candied_orange: you are correct, but missed my (and probably the OP's) point. The question is not about the license, it is about the applicability of the term "free software". See my answer below.
    – Doc Brown
    Nov 27, 2018 at 19:09
  • 1
    @DocBrown I had no problem with it being a terminology question. I'd feel more comfortable if it explicitly stated it wasn't asking for a legal opinion. Nov 27, 2018 at 21:52
  • 2
    I voted to close the question not because it asks for legal advice (it didn't) but because “You may be able to get help with understanding, applying, and complying with free and open licenses on Open Source.” The pre-written close reason just conflates these. I prefer guiding these questions to the Open Source site as they are more likely to receive competent answers there – even though in this particular case, a fine answer was received.
    – amon
    Nov 28, 2018 at 9:02

1 Answer 1


The term "free software" (especially when used as a synonym for free-and-open-source software, FOSS) usually refers to the license terms of the software itself, it does not depend on the platform needed to run a program. Otherwise, programs bound to commercial operating system like Windows or iOS could never be called "free software". GPL is widely accepted as a FOSS license, so the answer is clearly yes, a GPL lib is free software, regardless of the platform required for using it.

I would also recommend to have a look into the FSFs definition of free software. They mention four essential freedoms, but none of those points requires the platform for running the program to be FOSS as well. This is obvious for points like reading/modifying the source code, or the right of redistribution, but even the first one - "The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose" does not say "the hardware/software platform required for this needs to be free as well".

Independently from this, note there is a free MATLAB clone called GNU Octave. If someone has the intention to write a free lib which does not require any "unfree" software, they could make it compatible with GNU Octave on Linux. Nevertheless, to my understanding, the freedom of a lib does not depend on the availability of such a free platform.

  • 1
    The GPLv3 also explicitly excludes any System Libraries such as a compiler or interpreter from the GPL's coverage, thus making it unambiguously possible to develop GPL software for proprietary languages (as far as the GPL is concerned – the language's license must also allow this). The GPLv2 includes similar but less explicit terms.
    – amon
    Nov 28, 2018 at 8:57
  • Many thanks. I was familiar with the four freedoms, but you're right, I should have researched the question more before asking. Nov 28, 2018 at 10:57
  • Is it correct to say, though, that (ignoring for a moment the existence of Octave) the use of a MATLAB program, even one distributed under a free licence, is dependent upon the continual existence of the MATLAB computing environment? And doesn't this go against the freedom to run the program as you wish? (But the licence of the program has nothing to do with it, and it doesn't further limit your freedom to run the program, so it makes sense to still call it free.) Nov 28, 2018 at 11:04
  • 1
    @Rastapopoulos: depends on what continual existence of the MATLAB computing environment means. Once you bought an "offline" version of MATLAB (with no time limit restrictions), you can keep that version to run you MATLAB programs as often and as long as you wish. However, online SaaS platforms like "MATLAB online" can indeed undermine that freedom, so it is indeed debatable if programs written exclusively for such a platform are still "free".
    – Doc Brown
    Nov 28, 2018 at 16:24
  • 1
    @DavidArno: I agree with you, but I think FOSS hardliners may tend to disagree. I don't think they understand the "four freedoms" as "the freedom to do what you want with a piece of software", the four points are more specific. But lets not start a philosophical debate.
    – Doc Brown
    Nov 28, 2018 at 16:32

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.