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A lot of programs are released online free of cost. This can be anything made by a lot of people or by a single person but their whole intention to make such a product for free is for the public to use it. One of the most famous example for such a program is GNU which stands for GNU’s not Unix. GNU is an operating system free of cost which can be used by anyone and contains their own packages as well as third party software.[1] The main intention is to provide free software to people so that when a person buys a system without an operating system which makes the whole system useless, they can install it at free of cost without having to pay extra money for it. One of the most famous versions of GNU are Linux operating systems which are used widely from government system to personal computers. Linux gives users a lot of choices which are free and can suit their need which is the whole aim of creating this free software.[2]


Here the main problem is on how exactly these free programs can be copyrighted. There is always an option to release the software in the public domain or publish it not copyrighted.[3] The main problem with this is that if it is released without a copyright then people can use the program for free but in turn it also means that other companies or corporate entities can steal this idea and release it as their own.[4] They can make a few changes of their own and release it as their own proprietary software or software which is not free of cost.[5] This is a huge problem as the wanted outcome is for the public to utilize their system for free so that they don’t have to pay for similar programs but not for other entities to utilize their work and publish it as their own. To counter this exact problem there is a need to create a copyright such that anyone can redistribute this exact system with slight changes but they have to redistribute it for free. This is the essence of free software distribution.

Copyleft is a type of copyright which allows an inventor of a product to distribute his product free of cost while also allowing other entities to make subsequent programs based on the product but it has to be licensed similarly to the original product[6]. The main point of this is to allow maximum freedom possible to edit the product however anyone wants but also to prevent misuse so that a person cannot claim it as their own or steal the product and sell it for a price.


To usually copyleft a program a person a person signs a GPL or a General Public License. The General Public License protects the rights of the users by copyrighting the software and provides legal permission to copy , distribute or modify the software.[7] By applying this license a program can be copylefted easily under the mentioned terms and conditions. There are also various version and types of General Public License. Under GNU General Public License there are three versions which are GPLv1, GPLv2 and GPLv3, two versions under GNU Lesser General Public License which are LGPLv3 and LGPLv2.1, a version under Gnu Affero General Public License which is GNU AGPLv3 and three versions under GNU Free Documentation License which are FDLv1.1, FDLv1.2 and FDLv1.3.[8] These are various licenses suited for various needs for different types of copyrights.

The GNU Lesser General Public License allows proprietary or non-free license to be included in the library. This is less strict version of the General Public License which allows free software created to be also used with proprietary software so more people can access free software.[9] Only linking free software with free products would discourage the use of such software so as a strategic move GNU Lesser General Public License was created.

The GNU Affero General Public License adds a condition to the existing GNU General Public License which says that if a person runs a modified program on the server and let others communicate with it then he should allow those users to download the modified version for free.[10] This License allows us to access the source code of a program if it mainly on servers so we can make similar changes to our version.

The GNU Free Documentation License is especially made to include developers who wants to earn from their product. Here under this license developer can earn for their own free software using certain aspects of the license including covers, title page, history and endorsements.[11]

All these different types licenses are made so that all different types of users are accommodated while making free software and it becomes easier for people to create free software. These versions are brilliant as they do not ignore or cut out proprietary software which they criticize so much but include them so as to get better advantage and reach for their free product so that existing users of paid software can also utilize this. These licenses are the main component of copyleft which itself is a type of copyright.


The General Public License is a license for software programs originally created by Richard Stallman. Richard Stallman is one of the most important personalities when it comes to copyleft and other open source software. Richard Stallman heads the free software movement which shows how much freedom is restricted for non-free software users.[12] Stallman invented the concept of copyleft and with the help of lawyers created the General Public License. Richard Stallman is a political advocate for free software and is very critical of large corporations who he says restrict freedom of people.


Copyleft is a brilliant version of copyright which allows distribution of free software without being wrongly utilized by other entities while also allowing modifications with the condition that it should be released for free. Several license have also been released for this copyleft to accommodate everyone and also to have better reach. The main point of copyleft is to promote free software and user freedom which is very less in proprietary software. All of this would not have been possible with the creator of this genius idea that is Richard Stallman who is a prominent free software advocate. Further developments in the area of copyleft license can be expected as free software use is on the rise which has provided users with more freedom than ever before.

Author(s) Name: Rishith P R (National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi)


[1] ‘What is GNU?’, (gnu),, accessed 11th June 2023

[2] ‘What is GNU/Linux?’, (debian), , accessed 11th June 2023

[3] ‘Public domain software’, (gnu), , accessed 11th June 2023

[4] ‘What is Copyleft?’, (gnu), , accessed 11th June 2023

[5] ‘Proprietary software’, (gnu), , accessed 11th June

[6] Mikko Mustonen, ‘Copyleft- the economics of Linux and other open source software’, (2003) 15 Information Economics and Policy 99

[7] ‘GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE’, (iucr), , accessed on June 11th 2023

[8] ‘License URLs’, (gnu), , accessed on June 11th 2023

[9] ‘The GNU Lesser GPL’, (gnu), , accessed on June 11th 2023

[10] ‘Why the Affero GPL’, (gnu), , accessed on June 11th 2023

[11] ‘Why publishers should use GNU FDL’, (gnu), , accessed on June 11th  2023

[12] ‘Richard Stallman Personal Site’, (Stallman),, accessedon June 11th 2023