See also: License | GNU | Free Software

Acronym: GNU General Public License

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The GNU General Public License is a requirement for the development of Free Software / Open-Source Software (FLOSS). It was created in an effort to make developments in software akin to scientific developments, which are not kept secret, but can still be profited from. An individual can manipulate the source code in any way he sees fit, provided he only distributes copies of the modified software together with the source code or makes it available on request. This license is developed as part of the GNU Project.

Although thousands of software items are distributed under the GPL, its most famous incarnation is that of the Linux operating system.



The GPL is strongly opposed by Microsoft, which claims that it is like a cancer infecting “intellectual property” (Bill Gates himself used milder language, referring to it as a “Pac Man” license). Few people agree with this argument for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Linux is one of Microsoft’s chief competators. It’s a ‘fact that the GPL prohibits large corporations from simply “taking over” GPL projects with large amounts of development and marketing and then redistributing them as proprietary software.

This “viral nature” of the GPL makes it hard to profit from what is referred to as free software without contributing your own changes to the knowledge pool. Yet, many people believe the GPL to prohibit commercial use. This is not the case. Nor does the GPL require making changes to the source code available if you keep them to yourself. The GPL is also not like an End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) that Microsoft uses; the user does not have to accept it, since it only gives him rights and doesn’t take any away.

Also, some programs, such as certain parts of Linux are not required to have their source code released. Exceptions are allowable by a program’s developers to encourage private interests to take part where the GPL might give a commercial interest pause.

Related Licenses

GPL in the News

This discussion from Slashdot illustrates very well the purpose of the GPL:

Shouldn’t they be spent on something where the user is completely free to modify – either licensed BSD, or public domain?

Why should they? Your tax payer dollars pay for your city park, yet you aren’t free to set up a business in your city park; in fact, what you can do in your city park is quite restricted. And the purpose of those rules is so that everybody can enjoy the city park.
It’s quite analogous with the GPL: tax payer dollars pay for the software, and the GPL ensures that the software remains there to be enjoyed by everybody.
Likewise, the fact that tax payer dollars pay for software development doesn’t mean that anybody should be able to use that software for whatever they please.
Keep in mind that the same kind of people who make this argument against the GPL now had not trouble making the argument a few years ago that governments should pay for software development in the private sector and then leave ownership of that software with the companies that developed it.


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