Saturday, March 10, 2007



``... and any future version.''

This program is free software; 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.

People looking at source code of software under the GNU GPL will have come across the above text very frequently. Most other software licenses also contain such phraseology.

Several people, including so called legal experts have been quick to ask -- how can software be licensed under a license which does not exist?

I am attempting to answer this enigma here.

First, let us have a look the dictionary meaning of the term ``license''. Here is one from WordNet.

  license       n 1: a legal document giving official permission to do something            [syn: {licence}, {permit}]       2: freedom to deviate deliberately from normally applicable          rules or practices (especially in behavior or speech)          [syn: {licence}]       3: excessive freedom; lack of due restraint; "when liberty          becomes license dictatorship is near"- Will Durant; "the          intolerable license with which the newspapers break...the          rules of decorum"- Edmund Burke [syn: {licence}]       4: the act of giving a formal (usually written) authorization          [syn: {permission}, {permit}]       v : authorize officially; "I am licensed to practice law in this           state" [syn: {licence}, {certify}] [ant: {decertify}]     

I could write a few megabytes worth of (plain) text about the term ``license'' as it is used in copyright law; but for our purpose, it would be sufficient to note that sense 1 above is a good definition; and for Copyleft licenses, both 1 and 2 will hold true.

Thus, when you license software, what you get are certain permissions and those permissions are different from what you would get under the copyright law if you owned that copy.

In a copyleft Free Software license like the GNU GPL, what you get is freedom from the restrictions imposed on you by the copyright law, and the terms on which you get the freedom are specified in the license. When this license says that you have the option of using a future version of this license, it means that you can choose whether to use the software under the yet-to-be-released license. Of course, you can make choice only when the next version of the license is released. Obviously, if the next version is not to your liking, you opt not to use the updated version of the license.

There is absolutely no reason why a court of law will not accept this proposition. It should be remembered that the terms of the license grant do not change unilaterally. The grantor (copyright holder) has to choose to issue the subsequent version of the license. Once the new version of the license is in place a user can decide whether the terms of new license are beneficial to him or not.

After all, copyleft is for protecting the user.

This situation is more similar to buying something on credit and the seller says ``you can choose to pay me the price prevailing on the day you repay me''. The crucial term is ``you can choose''. If the buyer finds that the price of the goods is higher at the time he chooses to pay, he can choose to pay the price prevailing at the time of sale, or if the current price is lesser, the buyer can choose to pay the current price.

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