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The General Public License


Lawdit Solicitors - Expert Author

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21 April 2011

It is estimated that over 70% of open source software projects are licensed under the General Public License ("GPL"), which places several unique obligations on any person or company seeking to modify and redistribute code which is subject to it.

The GPL was first drafted in 1985 by free software advocate Richard Stallman before being redrafted and released as version 2 in 1991. Following widespread adoption, it was further amended to version 3, which sought to incorporate international copyright principles derived from the Berne Copyright Convention; a shift from its previous focus on American copyright law and an illustration of the popularity it achieved across the world.

The licence prevents code that is subject to the GPL from being adopted by proprietary developers, modified and protected under copyright law. It places obligations on any person distributing the code to make it available on the same terms it was received under; a system which Stallman dubbed "copyleft". This has led to the licence being described as "viral", in that a licensee must release its work under the same terms. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer went further and described Linux, which is subject to the GPL, as a "cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches".

Networking manufacturer Linksys, which is owned by Cisco Systems, fell foul of GPL terms when it was discovered in 2003 that the proprietary firmware for one of its line or wireless network routers was based on Linux. Accordingly, under threat of legal action, the company was forced to release the firmware under the terms of the GPL and this allowed developers to further develop the firmware and extend its capabilities.

This illustrates the innovation which the GPL has given rise to, together with the challenges faced by businesses seeking to take advantage of code which is subject to it. This is most likely what Richard Stallman envisioned when he first drafted the GPL and goes a long way towards explaining Steve Ballmer's disdain for the same.

Aasim Durrani is a legal assistant to Izaz Ali ( Izaz is a commercial solicitor who specialises in information technology law and intellectual property law with an emphasis on IT, escrow, online and off-line contracts and the buying and selling of online businesses.

About the Author

Lawdit Solicitors offer services and advice for litigation, commercial contracts, Intellectual Property and IT legal agreements. We are experts in commercial law with a heavy emphasis on Intellectual Property, Internet and e-commerce law. Lawdit is a member of the International Trademark Association, the Solicitors' Association of Higher Court Advocates and we are the appointed Solicitors to the largest webdesign association in the world, the United Kingdom Website Designers Association.

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2011-04-29 21:45:20 in Legal Articles

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