What Copyright is left in Copyleft?

Posted by: Daniela Madrid

Copyleft_image    An author of an original expression of work is granted many rights in his or her work through the federal Copyright Act of 1976. The author is granted many exclusive rights such as the right to sell, distribute, display, and perform. The author also controls any derivative work. The author is automatically granted these rights when the author puts the work in a fixed medium. Everyone, other than the author, is restricted from using the work without first obtaining permission from the author. But what happens when the author wants to make the work available to anyone and everyone? This issue arouse in the computer software industry and the free software movement was initiated in 1983 as a result.

Historically, software was created by computer science academics and corporate researchers working in collaboration. However, in the late 1960’s this open system of collaboration and cooperation began to shift as production costs increased and competition grew between software manufacturers attempting to bundle their software with hardware manufacturers.

However, there were still those people who wanted to continue to share and build upon each other’s work and thus the free software movement came about. The movement was launched by Richard Stallman after developers stopped releasing their source code and published only the running version of their software.

To address this issue, the GNU General Public License (“GPL”) was created. By releasing the software through the terms of the GPL, the author retains the copyright in the work but as opposed to restricting the use by others, the GPL ensures that everyone can use the software with the same freedoms as the author. This has been called copyleft and the software becomes free software.

Once the software is released through GPL, any user has the freedom to use the software for any purpose, is free to share the software with anyone, is free to make changes to the software, and is free to share the changes made to the software. However, the third party is not obligated to release modifications made to the software, modifications can be kept private. However, if a modification is released it is mandatory that the modification be released through the GPL. This requirement ensures the continuance of the free software movement. Additionally, the freedom to share and distribute are not a mandatory requirements of the third parties using the software. Anyone using the software can charge a fee when sharing the software with others. However, the person buying the software can then share it without charging a fee.

Given that Copyright Law was created to protect an author’s control over the original work, why would anyone want to make his or her work freely available? In the software industry, many developers find value in sharing their work so that others may assist in fixing bugs or enhancing the overall quality of the program. Additionally, part of the process of releasing a program under the GPL entails writing a copyright notice that states the name of the author. This ensures that the author of the original work retains credit in the work.


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