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Using the GPL is not a loss of rights, but a restoration · Thursday August 31, 2006 by Crosbie Fitch

Anyone who uses the GPL does not give any of their rights away.

Rights are inalienable.

If you can remember your history lessons, the state in its arrogant wisdom decided to trample upon people’s rights by instituting copyright – this suspended the public’s right to copy or derive new works from published works for a ‘limited time’, in order to incentivise publication.

There are a variety of approaches you, as a software developer, can take to make amends, but all you can do is to license back more or less of the public’s rights to the work you publish. You cannot actually give away any of the rights you already have, and you certainly can’t wrest back, simply by fiat, your rights that have been suspended by the state.

Your options:

  1. If you don’t publish, if you don’t let anyone see your work, that’s you enjoying your right to privacy. However, if you are making copies or derivatives from someone else’s published work without their permission, copyright still prohibits this. In this way, copyright even impacts your right to privacy.
  2. If you fully utilise copyright when you publish your work (you don’t provide any license), you’re exploiting copyright’s suspension of the public’s right to copy or modify your work.
  3. If you provide a typical proprietary license, you may be graciously permitting a backup copy or consequent use of a software patent, say, but you’re generally still exploiting copyright’s suspension of others’ rights to the software you’ve published.
  4. If you utilise the BSD license, you’re only restoring each licensee’s rights and not preserving the restoration of those rights for the public. You’re instead giving each licensee the choice as to whether to do this, how to license their copies or derivatives, i.e. giving them permission to keep suspended the public’s rights to make copies or derivatives.
  5. If you dedicate the software to the public domain, it’s not much different from the BSD, except that you make every member of the public a licensee in one fell swoop, and you’re also surrendering your status as copyright owner.
  6. If you utilise the GPL, you’re not only restoring licensees’ rights to your software that were removed by copyright or any software patents you may have, but are also ensuring they remain preserved to licensees of any copies or derivatives. When publishing GPL software, you effectively restore the public’s rights to it.

So, let’s get this straight. No-one gives any of their rights away. You simply decide how many of the public’s rights to your published work should remain suspended by copyright.

The GPL restores and preserves ALL of the public’s rights to your published work. When you utilise the GPL you are truly publishing your work in the original unadulterated sense of the word.

Until copyright and software patents are abolished, the GPL is thus the most ethical license to use when publishing your software. This is because it restores the public’s rights, and keeps it that way.

So, the GPL is not so much about your rights, but about everyone else’s. Nevertheless, you do restore to yourself your rights (as a member of the public) to everyone else’s published derivatives of your work. So, in a way, one can say that the GPL also restores rights back to you that are otherwise removed by default (under copyright).

This is why it’s ‘free’ – it restores the public’s freedom (and yours as a member of the public).

The GPL is an ethical license: “I believe the public should be free to enjoy my work, and should remain free – I PERMIT this by providing this license”

Note that while I think the GPL is useful for software, I do not think licensing is the best strategy for freeing culture in general. For that I recommend simply stating that one’s published work is free culture.

Scott C. said 4736 days ago :

No comment really about the GPL—I agree that it is a good and ethical license. Whenever I see those letters used in connection with software it makes me glad. (Like last night, when looking for an FTP client for the Mac, I found Cyberduck which appears to work great. I immediately felt at home seeing they were using the GPL and it certainly affected my decision to try—or in this case recommend someone else try—that particular program out of many that were listed at download.com. It still needs to prove itself as good software, of course, but I’m not the one using and evaluating it.)

In reference to your last note, I’ve thought about this for my own blog. I like the Creative Commons Share-Alike license and also admire the simplicity of your free culture statement. But I’m not sure what your statement means; if it tells us what it means to offer something as free culture. I think I know from reading your comments here and elsewhere what you mean, but your intention is ambiguous to me based only on the statement. I don’t know if it’s necessary to get hung up on a long legal license, but should we worry about potential misinterpretations of what it means to declare something is a work of free culture? Does it provide a loophole for those who don’t respect all artists equally? I suspect your answer might refer back to your Copyright Cannot be Coerced into Kindness post, that lawsuits wouldn’t be as effective as peer pressure anyways.

It gives me something to think about. Are we living in a world where we have to spell it out in legalese? One thing I like about the CC license is that when I visit sites with the CC logo, it is easy for me to check the url and quickly see what is being offered. (Unfortunately very often what is being offered are the Non-Commercial or No Derivatives clauses.) But maybe this is just a personal need to be rigidly analytical about it or a desire to pigeonhole.

Of course we’d like to live in a society where it’s just understood that anything published is free to be reused. That (again, published or expressed) ideas can’t be owned and controlled. Will we see this in our lifetime, or is it going to take a hundred years and a revolution or two?

Crosbie Fitch said 4736 days ago :

Thanks for picking me up on the ‘this is free culture’ issue. Perhaps one could build up an implicit association between an artist’s declaration and the CC-SA – for the benefit of lawyers or those worried by lawyers?

It’s time that artists and their audiences started rejecting the idea that they need to be worried about litigation when enjoying, exploring or evolving human culture.

As long as you don’t violate the truth or someone’s privacy, you should be free to enjoy culture. Perhaps if we start refusing to recognise anything except free culture, then non-free culture will wither on the vine? :-)

The thing is, people are now the publishers and people don’t need to prosecute traditional publishers, they simply reject any attempt by anyone to remove the public’s rights to free culture.

Scott C. said 4736 days ago :

Let’s hope non-freedom whithers away. ‘The Promise of a Post-Copyright World’ (which you linked to recently) describes how the stream of freely available material will get bigger and the proprietary stream won’t survive forever. There’s just this intermediate period where things are in question, and timelines are uncertain. People need to be aware of the history of copyright to start seeing why it should be an historical artifact and that we can do things better now. The “people are now publishers.” We may still need printers, but they don’t need the power that publishers formerly enjoyed. Now what we need are new filtering mechanisms to find the good stuff. Publishers used to help with this service, but again it doesn’t justify their power. And it wasn’t a great way to filter. It seems that post-publication filtering has to be better than pre-publication. Everyone should get to have their say. It’s up to the filters to help people find what is worth listening to.

drew Roberts said 4651 days ago :

To Scott C.

I am a GPL and CC BY-SA boy myself.

“but should we worry about potential misinterpretations of what it means to declare something is a work of free culture?”

Unfortunately, I think we do need to worry about this. And CC’s range of rights lumped under one common umbrella is not helping.

I have called repeatedly (it seems to me at least) for CC to adopt a Free CC logo etc. to allow those of us CC users who are concerned with Free to workd together without having to look at the link all the time to weed out those NC and ND works that personally just waste my time.

So far no response.

“Will we see this in our lifetime, or is it going to take a hundred years and a revolution or two?”

Well, I think the more the copyleft pool of works builds up, the more likely we are to see the copyright laws become more sensible.

all the best,


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