What happens if you break an open source license and include a code released under GPL in a closed source project?

Can you go to jail? Who will sue you? For what? "Not respecting the will" of those who created the free source code? Is there any support in the jurisdiction (of any state) that would put any punishment to those who do not respect software freedom?

Inspired by a question I have just seen on SO: Is it allowed to use ideas from open source in closed source, not being able to find any answer to this question.

+5  A: 

I guess you might get sued by the FSF, but I believe your worst problem will be terrible PR and karma.

I've been told that there's alsoa special "bolgia" in Hell for people that do that, but I can't tell for sure.

this is not true. they will first ask you to stop using OR open your source. if you will not you will sue you.
Terrible PR? I think exactly the opposite can happen :) - a lot of publicity for the product for being the first offender (at least I did not hear about anyone being caught stealing free source code), and in the eyes of general public, I can still shout: "I did not steal, they were giving it for free. I just took it."
@Marek: History tells us that you are wrong about this: people caught using OSS and trying to avoid their obligations have felt the pinch. Because everyone in the business (Open Source, shirkwrap, site contract, whatever) relies on licensing rules being enforceable: if they aren't all kinds of business models break..
+2  A: 

Presumably the copyright holders could sue to have the non-compliant project's source code released to the public licensed code removed from the project or to bring the project into compliance. This would be a civil action to enforce a contract copyright. I haven't read about any criminal implications to date.

Contract != License. You will be never forced to open code.
@Andrey: Thanks for clearing the FUD.
+11  A: 

Don't get legal advice from coders.

My guess: if you break the terms of a licence (not a contract, as has been pointed out) then the other party could go to court and get an order or injunction to stop you selling your software until the GPL code portions are removed. If you were to disobey the courts then the courts may well be able to fine you, send you to jail etc.

I can't begin to guess how likely such an outcome would be.

There do seem to be many less onerous licences than GPL, and lots of good stuff under those licences.

Contract != License.
I've aways wondered how much force the licence terms "By opening this envelope you agree to ..." have. Do they constitute a contract? I'd hate to bet my house that they don't!
True, @Andrey, but the the outcome predicted by the article you reference is exactly as I guessed: "prevented from distributing its product further".
+1 because of the wisest advice of all

You DIAF. Immediately. You like burst into flames as soon as you make your first sale. Its terrible. Don't do it.

But seriously, you would get sued by whomever's code you stole. IANAL, of course, but I don't think its a criminal issue, so no jail time. If its a big enough deal, the FSF or EFF might get involved, but they have no direct legal involvement.

Tim Coker
Actually it is a criminal issue, at least in my country, and likely in other countries as well.
+5  A: 

Here is the best explanation ever: The main idea is that GPL is License, not Contract, thus not exchange of obligations.

I like this article, it's very clear and concise. Even a programmer can understand it!!
+2  A: 

If you break an open-source license, the authors of the software would have remedies under copyright law. Should they choose to try to enforce them, the first step would be to have a lawyer send you a "cease and desist letter". It's then up to you to cease and desist or to argue that your use does not violate the license. If you can't agree with the copyright holders, maybe you agree on a settlement, where they agree not to pursue the case, perhaps in exchange for money. If it goes to court, the remedies of first resort probably include things like having the federal government force you to stop distributing the infringing work, paying monetary damages, that sort of thing. I don't think there are criminal penalties for violating copyright law, but there probably are criminal penalties (contempt of court) for willfully ignoring an order from a federal judge. Far before it gets to that stage, you should consult a lawyer.

My credentials for answering this question: I have received a cease-and-desist letter ordering me to stop misusing a trademarked term (not identical to copyright law, but similar). I responded asking the law term to point out exactly where I had misused the term, because otherwise I could not comply with a blanket request to stop misusing their trademark. I never heard back from them.

Norman Ramsey
+1  A: 

Don't assume that just because most OSS developers will be to lazy to sue you, you'll get away with it. I know lots of OSS developers (myself included) who would just transfer the copyright of their code to the FSF if they found out you stole their code. The FSF would then go after you with a burning passion. This has happened several times.

Bottom line, don't steal from the OSS community. It's really bad karma.

"this has happened several times" - do you have any reference for this?
@Marek - Google is quite useful for answering questions like this. Or just go to the FSF site - their current stats show that their compliance section has 23 open cases. And you can find examples of these - e.g. [Suit Against Cisco]( or [GPL Enforcement in Apple's App Store]( Or try []( You're out of luck if you're hoping to be the first to end up in court for this kind of thing :(
George Hawkins