Magazine article Information Today

What Is Right about a Copyleft? This New Licensing Agreement Allows Users to Modify an Intellectual Creation. (Legal Issues)

Magazine article Information Today

What Is Right about a Copyleft? This New Licensing Agreement Allows Users to Modify an Intellectual Creation. (Legal Issues)

Article excerpt

Imagine this scenario: It's an unusually warm early-April day and it's about a quarter to quitting time. Rather than start a new project so close to the end of the day, you go to the computer and peruse the latest edition of Information Today. An article (let's say this one) catches your eye and you begin to read. You're enjoying the article (of course), but you'd like the author to have expanded on a certain point or two, and you have a comment that you'd like to add. So you download the article to your desktop and start writing. A half-hour later you've added your input (making it a much better article) and have uploaded it back to the Information Today, Inc. (ITI) Web site, where the new version is now available for the next reader.

Could this be an April Fool's scenario? While it is at the present time, it may not be in the future, under the still-developing concept of the "copyleft." A copyleft is a form of an intellectual property agreement that's applied to a creative product as it's published. The copyleft permits any and all subsequent users to reproduce, modify, or adapt the original creation as they require, thus developing new and different creations. However, the primary condition of the copyleft agreement is that any new creation based on the original must also be covered by the same copyleft agreement, thereby permitting the continuing development of new creative products. In theory, the copyleft would continue to apply no matter how many adaptations are developed.

General Public Licenses

Copyleft is a semi-official umbrella term used to describe a specific type of licensing agreement known as a General Public License (GPL). Until now, GPLs have largely been a product of open source software development. Programmers who designed new software sought to protect free public access to their creations while also offering the programming source code to other developers for improvement or adaptation. The programmers were concerned that a subsequent developer could commercialize and restrict access to and further development of the software, ultimately removing it from the public domain and additional development.

To legally protect their work while permitting free access to both the application and the underlying source code, the GPL was created. A classic model of this type of ongoing software development is the Linux operating system ( that originated in the early 1990s and was launched under a GPL as an open source alternative to commercial computer operating systems. Since its original release, Linux has been constantly reworked and improved by thousands of individual, academic, and corporate programmers and is still available free of charge, or bundled with other features and conveniences for a fee.

There are several GPLs that are published and available on the Internet. The most prominent one in the software community seems to be from the GNU Project (, which offers several alternate GPLs, including one specifically designed for nonsoftware intellectual creations. Another form of GPL, also designed for non-software intellectual creations, is the Design Science License (, developed by Linux programmer and author Michael Stutz.

Copyleft and Copyright

Copyleft agreements and GPLs are not replacements for any copyright that exists on the original work. A copyright at its basic level is a bundle of rights controlled by the creator of an intellectual work, including the right to copy, distribute, modify, perform, and display the work. In order to make creative works available in the marketplace, authors often enter into agreements with publishers or others who transfer some of those rights in return for publication and/or royalties. This article, for example, is subject to an agreement between me as the author and ITI as the publisher that assigns certain of my rights to ITI in return for its publication of the article. …

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