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8.4: Understanding GNU’s General Public Licence—A Legal Bastion

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    “The [GNU’s] GPL has become a powerful force in the information age. A hack on the copyright system, it turns the concept of copyright upside down, creates a whole community cooperating around the world and enables the development of software by the people, of the people and for the people. Many new licenses were modeled after or influenced by the GPL”. – Tai (2001)

    Stallman founded the GNU Project in 1984 to create a free software operating system. GNU sought to replace the proprietary Unix platform which AT&T, with the help of Sun, was seeking to establish as the monolithic operating system for the industry. Hence the recursive name of the project, “GNU is Not Unix” (Free Software Foundation, Inc. 2007). In 1985, Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation, Inc. (FSF), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the free software movement in general, and the GNU Project in particular. Between 1984 and 1988, GNU and the FSF developed special licences for specific GNU programs (Tai, 2001). This licensing approach was eventually consolidated in February 1989 as the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) Version 1 (Tai, 2001). The GPL became the gold standard for ensuring the future of freely sourced software for a variety of reasons. First, the GPL protected user rights to free software by delineating responsibilities with regard to distribution, copying and modification of the software. While similar to earlier licences, the GPL was unique in that:

    if you distribute[d] copies of such a program, whether gratis or for a fee, you must give the recipients all the rights that you have. You must make sure that they, too, receive or can get the source code. And you must tell them their rights (Free Software Foundation, Inc., February 1989).

    Here, Stallman ensured that any distributions would carry the original rights to distribute, copy and modify. This was further specified in Section 2.b stating that any secondary programming containing the original free work “be licensed at no charge to all third parties under the terms of this General Public License” (Free Software Foundation, Inc., February 1989). Thus, the GPL effectively prevented proprietary commercialization of the free programs. As opposed to “copyright”, GPL became commonly known as “copy left.”11

    From the programmers’ perspective, another critical aspect of GPL was that the licence ensured any distribution, copying, or modification would always make clear that the originators of the software did not provide any type of warranty with regard to the software. The GPL was updated as Version 2 in 1991 along with the release of a licence variation called the Library GPL. The second version of GPL included a section to counteract claims that users were unable to fulfill the GPL licence and were therefore not bound by the terms. GPL Version 3 is currently under discussion. Some new aspects have to deal with digital rights management issues, as high-lighted in legal cases against peer-to-peer sharing of copyrighted materials.

    Two additional licensing documents connected to the GPL are the Library GPL, or as it’s now called, the GNU Lesser General Public Licence (LGPL) and the Free Documentation Licence (FDL). The LGPL was originally released in 1991 and updated in 1999 (Free Software Foundation, Inc., 1991/1999). It was developed to allow non-free software to interface with free software. Previously, under the terms of the original GPL, such an interaction would have made the “using” non-free software subject to the GPL (Free Software Foundation, Inc., 1991/1999). The FDL was added to the GPL legal library in November 2000. It was later revised in 2001 and 2002. The original intention was to align manual licensing requirements for GPL software with the GPL, but the licence scope is not limited to free software manuals. The FDL applies to “any manual or other work, in any medium” and ensures the work has “a world-wide, royalty-free licence, unlimited in duration” as long as the FDL terms are met (Free Software Foundation, Inc., November 2002). Similar to the GPL, with regard to the work in question, the FDL grants:

    everyone the effective freedom to copy and redistribute it, with or without modifying it, either commercially or noncommercially … this License preserves for the author and publisher a way to get credit for their work, while not being considered responsible for modifications made by others (Free Software Foundation, Inc., November 2002).

    Through the GPL licences, Stallman and the FSF legally and successfully entrenched the ethical obligation to keep free software and any derivative works free. Ultimately, many subsequent agreements, like those among the 58 licences approved by the OSI (Open Source Initiative, 2006b) or The Debian Social Contract Version 1.0 (Software in the Public Interest, 1997) owe a great deal to the GPL. Stallman and Moglen said this of GPL in 2005:

    The GPL is employed by tens of thousands of software projects around the world, of which the Free Software Foundation’s GNU system is a tiny fraction. The GNU system, when combined with Linus Torvalds’ Linux—which has evolved into a flexible, highly portable, industry-leading operating system kernel—along with Samba, MySQL, and other GPL’d programs, offers superior reliability and adaptability to Microsoft’s operating systems, at nominal cost. GPL’d software runs on or is embedded in devices ranging from cellphones, PDAs and home networking appliances to mainframes and supercomputing clusters. Independent software developers around the world, as well as every large corporate IT buyer and seller, and a surprisingly large proportion of individual users, interact with the GPL.

    This page titled 8.4: Understanding GNU’s General Public Licence—A Legal Bastion is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sandy Hirtz (BC Campus) .

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