What Is Copyleft?

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What Is Copyleft?

The simplest way to make a program free is to put it in the public domain (18k characters), uncopyrighted. This allows people to share the program and their improvements, if they are so minded. But it also allows uncooperative people to convert the program into proprietary software (18k characters). They can make changes, many or few, and distribute the result as a proprietary product. People who receive the program in that modified form do not have the freedom that the original author gave them; the middleman has stripped it away.

In the GNU project, our aim is to give all users the freedom to redistribute and change GNU software. If middlemen could strip off the freedom, we might have many users, but those users would not have freedom. So instead of putting GNU software in the public domain, we ``copyleft'' it. Copyleft says that anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along the freedom to further copy and change it. Copyleft guarantees that every user has freedom.

Copyleft provides another benefit as well. People who write improvements in free software often work for companies or universities that would do almost anything to get money. A programmer may want to contribute her changes to the community, but her employer may ``see green'' and insist on turning the changes into a commercial product.

When we explain to the employer that it is illegal to distribute the improved version except as free software, the employer usually decides to release it as free software rather than throw it away.

To copyleft a program, first we copyright it; then we add distribution terms, which are a legal instrument that gives everyone the rights to use, modify, and redistribute the program's code or any program derived from it but only if the distribution terms are unchanged. Thus, the code and the freedoms become legally inseparable.

Proprietary software developers use copyright to take away the users' freedom; we use copyright to guarantee their freedom. That's why we reverse the name, changing ``copyright'' into ``copyleft.''

Copyleft is a general concept; there are many ways to fill in the details. In the GNU Project, the specific distribution terms that we use are contained in the GNU General Public License (20k characters) (GNU GPL). An alternate form, the GNU Library General Public License (27k characters) (GNU LGPL), applies to a few (but not all) GNU libraries. The library license permits linking the libraries into proprietary executables under certain conditions.

The appropriate license is included in many manuals and in each GNU source code distribution (usually in files named COPYING (20k characters) and COPYING.LIB (27k characters)).

The GNU GPL is designed so that you can easily apply it to your own program if you are the copyright holder. You don't have to modify the GNU GPL to do this, just add notices to your program which refer properly to the GNU GPL.

If you would like to copyleft your program with the GNU GPL, please see the instructions at the end (20k characters) of the GPL text. If you would like to copyleft your library with the GNU LGPL, please see the instructions at the end (27k characters) of the LGPL text (note you can also use the ordinary GPL for libraries).

Using the same distribution terms for many different programs makes it easy to copy code between various different programs. Since they all have the same distribution terms, there is no need to think about whether the terms are compatible. The Library GPL includes a provision that lets you alter the distribution terms to the ordinary GPL, so that you can copy code into another program covered by the GPL.

Translations of the GPL

Here are some translations of the GNU GPL done by others.

These versions are not official. Legally speaking, the original (English) version of the GPL is what specifies the actual distribution terms for GNU programs.

The reason the FSF does not approve these translations as officially valid is that checking them would be difficult and expensive (needing the help of bilingual lawyers in other countries). Even worse, if an error did slip through, the results could be disastrous for the whole free software community. As long as the translations are unofficial, they can't do any harm, and we hope they help more people understand the GPL.

Other Texts to Read

This first group of articles directly address the philosophy of the GNU project and free software:

This second group of articles deal with related topics but are not directly about the GNU project:

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Updated: 4 Aug 1997 tower