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This page originally created by Gavin S. (2020-21) and Melodie X. (2021-2022)

Copyleft is defined as “the right to freely use, modify, copy, and share software, works of art, etc., on the condition that these rights be granted to all subsequent users or owners.” ( It is a method that makes programs free, and needing other programs that are extended versions to be free as well. "Copyleft says that anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along the freedom to further copy and change it."(GNU, 2022). It refers to a license that obligates redistribution of a work to have the same license as the original. Copyleft was made to ensure users have freedom when using software online.

How Copyleft Started[edit]

Copyleft started around 1984 and was created by a man named Richard Stallman, a computer expert at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). He created the first general public license for the GNU, a software project Stallman started himself. At the time, Copyleft was a small project that Stallman started to keep information in the GNU safe, but also free for other people to use and add on to the project. He wanted to develop this project around his "four types of freedoms." These four freedoms were the freedom to use a program however the user wishes, to change the program to the user's liking, to hand out copies of the program, and to distribute versions of the program with new coding.

Ever since 1984, Stallman and many others have developed Copyleft and the rules and guidelines around it, and have made Copyleft a very well known intellectual property in the online world. Read more about GNU here.

How Copyleft Works[edit]

Copyleft works by figuring out what software, device, or program it is to be used on. The owner must add legal documents onto the program in order for the program to be able to be used. These are known as “Copyleft Provisions”, and they show the guidelines of the program that must be followed by the user. After the user have signed off on these provisions, they are free to use the software or program as long as the use follow the terms in the document. If these terms are broken, the user will not be allowed to use the program or software any longer, and could possibly be sued by the owner.

The GNU project uses a different way to Copyleft their works. The program is stated to be Copyrighted, then has distribution terms added where everyone has the rights to freely "use, modify, and redistribute the program's code, or any program derived from it, but only if the distribution terms are unchanged." (GNU, 2022). The work will then be Copylefted.

Another way to make a program/software free would be to put it in the public domain without copyright. This can allow other users to improve the program to their own liking. However, this allows companies to modify programs and share them as a proprietary product. Copyleft prevents this, and most companies release the program as free software instead of deleting everything after being contacted by the owner.

Legal Issues and The Law[edit]

Copyleft Provisions are a great spin off of Copyright Laws, but they are not perfect. If terms in the contract are broken, it can lead to a messy legal dispute. The owner can sue for loss of revenue on their side, or sue for the money the user may have made while using their program or software. In very serious legal disputes, not only do lawyers get involved, but so can the proper authorities, which could possibly result in jail time depending on what terms were broken. The contract with the Copylefted product should always be clear as to avoid issues with confusion in the future.

There is a misconception with Copyleft where the symbol contains a backwards "C" instead of a regular "C" has legal meaning. A backwards "C" inside a circle holds no meaning legally. The regular Copyright symbol should be used when indicating that a work is Copylefted. However, a circle with a backwards "C" still represents Copyleft, just has no significance when it comes to law.

Similar to before, failure to comply with Copyleft's distribution terms, or the owner's terms can cause legal disputes with monetary fines. It can also cause the program to be less accessible to future users due to the fact that someone may have distributed the product improperly.

Copyleft VS Copyright[edit]

Copyleft and Copyright may sound similar due to the names, but in fact they are a lot different from each other. Copyleft is a play on words from Copyright, since the two are known as opposites. While Copyleft deals with more open source modification between users on the software being shared, Copyright deals with protecting private work from being reused without proper authorization.

Much of what Copyleft stands for is user freedom while working online, and being able to work in a safe community as well. Working with freedom is important considering much of what is online is subject to copyright, from photos and videos, to certain articles and much more. While Copyright is great for the owner or company of something online, it rarely benefits the many users that want to use something online but can not because it is copyrighted. Copyleft benefits the user greatly while still keeping the owner or company's work safe. It also prevents the creation of proprietary products from those that were originally open source.


Copyleft is a great way for users to have freedom while working on software and programs. It encourages collaboration through many with different programs and softwares. Being a subset of Copyright licenses, the main goal of Copyleft licenses is to give freedom to the users. Since it was built of the four bases of usage, modification, distribution, and redistribution, many people can work together to create the ultimate program for one topic. However, there are still terms that must be followed to prevent infringement or legal complications of any sort.


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