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The Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement

The GNU General Public License (GPL) is the principal copyleft license. Copyleft is a framework that permits ongoing sharing of a published work, with clear permissions that both grant and defend its users' freedoms — in contrast to other free licenses that grant freedom but don't defend it. Free software released under the GPL is fundamental to modern technology, powering everything from laptops and desktops to household appliances, cars, and mobile phones, to the foundations of the Internet. Following the GPL's terms is easy — it gets more complicated only when products distributed with GPL'd software also include software distributed under terms that restrict users. Even in these situations, many companies comply properly, but some companies also try to bend or even break the GPL's rules to their perceived advantage.

The Software Freedom Conservancy regularly engages in worldwide efforts to ensure compliance with the GPL family of licenses. Conservancy has enforced the GPL for many of its member projects since its founding in 2006. Conservancy also helped published, and hosts, Copyleft and the GNU General Public License: A Comprehensive Tutorial and Guide (often called the “Copyleft Guide”), which includes sections such as “A Practical Guide to GPL Compliance” and “Case Studies in GPL Enforcement”. Those sections explain the typical process that Conservancy follows in our GPL enforcement actions. (A Shorter descriptions of these processes appeared in earlier blog post.)

As stalwarts of the community's freedom, we act as a proxy for users when companies impede the rights to copy, share, modify, and/or redistribute copylefted software. We require all redistributors to follow the GPL's requirements in order to protect all the users' freedom, and secondarily to support businesses that respect freedom while discouraging and penalizing bad actors.

Copyleft is based on copyright; it uses the power of copyright to defend users' freedom to modify and redistribute rather than to hinder modification and redistribution. A traditional copyright license is violated by giving the work to others without permission; a copyleft license is violated by imposing restrictions to prevent further redistribution by others. Nevertheless, with their basis in copyright law, copyleft licenses are enforced through the same mechanisms — using the same vocabulary and processes — as other copyright licenses. We must take care, in copyleft enforcement, to focus on the ultimate freedom-spreading purpose of copyleft, and not fall into an overzealous or punitive approach, or into legitimizing inherently unjust aspects of the copyright regime. Therefore Conservancy does enforcement according to community-oriented principles originally formulated by other community leaders in 2001.

Guiding Principles in Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement

These principles are not intended as a strict set of rules. Achieving compliance requires an understanding of the violator's situation, not so as to excuse the violation, but so as to see how to bring that violator into compliance. Copyleft licenses do not state specific enforcement methodologies (other than license termination itself) in part because the real world situation of GPL violations varies; rigidity impedes success.

In particular, this list of principles purposely does not seek to create strict criteria and/or “escalation and mediation rules” for enforcement action. Efforts to do that limit the ability of copyright holders to use copyleft licenses for their intended effect: to stand up for the rights of users to copy, modify, and redistribute free software.

The GPL, enforced when necessary according to these principles, provides a foundation for respectful, egalitarian, software-sharing communities.

Copyright © 2021, Software Freedom Conservancy.
Copyright © 2015, Free Software Foundation, Inc., Software Freedom Conservancy, Inc., Bradley M. Kuhn, Allison Randal, Karen M. Sandler.
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
The copyright holders ask that per §3(a)(1)(A)(i) and §3(a)(1)(A)(v) of that license, you ensure these two links ([1], [2]) are preserved in modified and/or redistributed versions.

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