Applying Copyleft To Non-Software Information
by Michael Stutz
First, what is Copyleft?
The entry for
“copyleft” in the
definitive hacker lexicon, the
copyleft: /kop'ee-left/ [play on ‘copyright’] n. 1. The
copyright notice (‘General Public License’) carried by
GNU EMACS and other Free Software Foundation software, granting
reuse and reproduction rights to all comers (but see also General
Public Virus). 2. By extension, any copyright notice intended to
achieve similar aims.
The idea of copyleft
originated with über-hacker
Richard Stallman in 1983 when he started
the GNU Project. In brief, his
goal was “to develop a complete free Unix-like operating
system.” As part of that goal, he invented and wrote
the GNU General Public License, a
legal construct that included a copyright notice but added to it (or,
technically, removed certain restrictions), so its terms allowed for
the freedoms of reuse, modification and reproduction of a work or its
derivatives to be kept for all.
copyright asserts ownership and identification of the author, as
well as prevents the use of the author's name as author of a distorted
version of the work; it also prevents intentional distortion of the
work by others and prevents destruction of the work. But it also
carries other restrictions — such as restricting the
reproduction or modification of a work.
Copyleft contains the normal copyright statement, asserting ownership
and identification of the author. However, it then gives away
some of the other rights implicit in the normal copyright: it says
that not only are you free to redistribute this work, but you are also
free to change the work. However, you cannot claim to have written the
original work, nor can you claim that these changes were created by
someone else. Finally, all derivative works must also be placed under
Why is Copyleft important, or even necessary?
Certain restrictions of copyright — such as distribution and
modification — are not very useful to “cyberia,” the
“free, apolitical, democratic community” that constitutes
the internetworked digital world.
With computers, perfect copies of a digital work can easily be made
— and even modified, or further distributed — by others,
with no loss of the original work. As individuals interact in cyberia,
sharing information — then reacting and building upon it —
is not only natural, but this is the only way for individual
beings to thrive in a community. In essence, the idea of copyleft is
basic to the natural propagation of digital information among humans
in a society. This is why the regular notion of copyright does not
make sense in the context of cyberia.
Simple ‘public domain’ publication will not work, because
some will try to abuse this for profit by depriving others of freedom;
as long as we live in a world with a legal system where legal
abstractions such as copyright are necessary, as responsible artists
or scientists we will need the formal legal abstractions of copyleft
that ensure our freedom and the freedom of others.
Much literature has been written on this subject by Stallman, and the
details can be found in the
excellent texts published
by the Free Software Foundation.
So why isn't the FSF's GNU GPL good enough?
It is good enough! The GNU GPL is not only a document of
significant historical and literary value, but it is in wide use today
for countless software programs — those as formal part of the
GNU Project and otherwise. The GNU GPL originated for the specific
goal of sharing software among computer programmers. However, looking
closely at the GPL, it appears that the same License can be easily
applied to non-software information.
Alternately, a document can be copylefted under different, or much
simpler terms; whether or not the GNU GPL is the specific means to the
end is not the issue, although the GNU GPL certainly provides the most
explicit (and canonical) definition of copyleft.
Ok, so how do I copyleft my non-software work?
It's simple. While a particular situation may require or inspire its
own specific License, possibly similar to the GNU GPL, all that a
copyleft notice must really do is fulfill the points as defined above
in “First, what is Copyleft?”. Using
the GNU GPL to copyleft your work is easy.
The GNU GPL states that it “applies to any program or other work
which contains a notice placed by the copyright holder saying it may
be distributed under the terms of this General Public License,”
so this “Program,” then, may not necessarily be a computer
software program — any work of any nature that can be
copyrighted can be copylefted with the GNU GPL.
The GNU GPL references the “source code” of a work; this
“source code” will mean different things for different
kinds of information, but the definition of “source code”
— provided in the GNU GPL — holds true in any case:
“The source code for a work means the preferred form of the work
for making modifications to it.”
The notices attached to the work can not always be attached “to
the start of each source file,” as recommended by the GNU
GPL. In this case, the directory that the files reside should contain
a notice, as should any accompanying documentation or literature.
Finally, for non-software works the “copyright” line
included at the start of the “source code” of the work is
modified in language slightly:
<one line to give the work's name and a brief idea of what it does.>
Copyright (C) yyyy <name of author>
This information is free; you can redistribute it and/or modify it
under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by
the Free Software Foundation; either version 2 of the License, or
(at your option) any later version.
This work is distributed in the hope that it will be useful,
but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of
MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the
GNU General Public License for more details.
You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License
along with this work; if not, write to the Free Software
Foundation, Inc., 51 Franklin Street, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301, USA.
Where do I go from here?
Here are sources for further information on copyleft, especially as
it is applied to non-software information:
The rest of this web site is the home of
the GNU Project and is the canonical source for copyleft and
Ram Samudrala wrote
Music Philosophy and creates copylefted music as the
band Twisted Helices.
Some of my own non-software copylefted works include texts
(literature, reviews, technical)