Constitutional affairs legal affairs


partment C: Citizens' Rights and Constitutional Affairs



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Policy Department C: Citizens' Rights and Constitutional Affairs 
____________________________________________________________________________________________ 
 
6
An introduction to the most used FOSS license:            
the GNU GPL license 
Dr. Eben Moglen, JD and Ian Sullivan,                                   
Columbia Law School 
 
 
ABSTRACT 
The public drafting and discussion of GPLv3 in 2006-07 was a landmark in non-
governmental transnational law-making. Free and open source software production 
communities are held together by copyright licensing, as are free cultural production 
communities like Wikipedia. Their efforts to improve those licenses—to increase their utility 
in multiple legal systems, to take account of technical and economic changes in the field, 
and to increase their efficiency of operation and enforcement—are among the most 
important examples of genuinely democratic, participatory law-making that we have 
experienced so far in the 21st century. 
 
CONTENT
 
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 

1  THE GPL AND COPYLEFT 

2   CREATING VERSION THREE OF THE GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE 
(GPLV3) 

3  THE PUBLIC CONSULTATION 

4 THE 
DRAFTS 
11 
CONCLUSION 
12
 
 
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 
The public drafting and discussion of GPLv3 in 2006-07 was a landmark in non-
governmental transnational lawmaking. Free and open source software production 
communities are held together by copyright licensing, as are free cultural production 
communities like Wikipedia. Their efforts to improve those licenses—to increase their utility 
in multiple legal systems, to take account of technical and economic changes in the field, 
and to increase their efficiency of operation and enforcement—are among the most 
important examples of genuinely democratic, participatory law-making that we have 
experienced so far in the 21st century. In the interest of improving both the European 
Parliament’s access to the details of this particular process, and to assist it in self-scrutiny, 
with respect to its extraordinary consistency in missing its opportunities in this area, 
Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) submits the records of this process, which it assisted 
its client, the Free Software Foundation, to design and execute. 
1
 
                                                 
1 While this 19 month transnational consultation process operated entirely on Free Software, the procedures of 
this Parliament require the use of proprietary document production tools and formats in order to discuss it on the 
public record. This document is the closest approximation to those formats that can be produced using 
internationally recognized standard formats and Free Software document production tools that are available to all 


Workshop: Legal aspects of free and open source software 
____________________________________________________________________________________________ 
 
7
1   THE 
GPL 
AND 
COPYLEFT 
The GPL is the world's most widely used Free Software licence.
2
 The Free Software 
Foundation, the founders of the Free Software movement, defines free software as: 
[S]oftware that respects users' freedom and community. Roughly, the users 
have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve 
the software. With these freedoms, the users (both individually and 
collectively) control the program and what it does for them.
3
 
The GPL preserves these freedoms for its users through a series of requirements in the 
licence. Originally designed for use in the GNU project to build a fully free computer 
operating system, these licence requirements are collectively referred to as “Copyleft”. The 
GNU project's explanation of Copyleft follows. 
1.1.
 
What is Copyleft?
4
 
Copyleft
5
 is a general method for making a program free software and requiring all 
modified and extended versions of the program to be free software as well.  
The simplest way to make a program free is to put it in the 
public domain
,
6
 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
.
7
 
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
,
8
 the aim is to give all users the freedom to redistribute and change 
GNU software. If middlemen could strip off the freedom, there might be many users, but 
those users would not have freedom. So, instead of putting GNU software in the public 
domain, it has been “copylefted”. 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 also provides an 
incentive
9
 for other programmers to add to free software. 
Important free programs (such as the GNU C++ compiler) exist only because of this.  
Copyleft also helps programmers who want to contribute 
improvements
10
 to 
free software
11
 
get permission to do that. These programmers often work for companies or universities 
that would do almost anything to get more money. A programmer may want to contribute 
his/her changes to the community, but her employer may want to turn the changes into a 
proprietary software product.  
When the employer is told 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, it is first stated that it is copyrighted; then, distribution terms are 
added, 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.  
                                                                                                                                                            
EU citizens. The requirement to use proprietary fonts, formats and tools in discussing EU free and open source 
software policy is a testament to the incoherence of that policy. 

http://osrc.blackducksoftware.com/data/licenses/
.  
3 Emphasis original, from The Free Software definition - 
https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

4 Text of this section is taken almost verbatim from the Free Software Foundations' licence description text, which 
is available at 
https://www.gnu.org/licenses/
.  
5
 See 
https://www.gnu.org/copyleft/copyleft.html
.  
6
 See 
https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/categories.html#PublicDomainSoftware
.  
7
 See 
https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/categories.html#ProprietarySoftware
.  
8
 See 
https://www.gnu.org/gnu/thegnuproject.html
.  
9
 See 
https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/pragmatic.html
.  
10
 See 
https://www.gnu.org/software/software.html#HelpWriteSoftware
.  
11
 See 
https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html
.  



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