Celebrating a Belated Milestone: 35 Years of the GPL

Mon, 4 Mar 2024

Last week, on February 25th, a significant landmark in software history slipped by with surprisingly little fanfare - the 35th anniversary of the GNU General Public License (GPL). While this "coral anniversary" might not be as widely recognized as a silver or gold one, the GPL deserves attention for its profound impact.

It's worth noting that the GPL's story extends even further. Richard Stallman, the visionary founder of the free software movement, had worked on free software and copyleft licenses for years. Proto-versions of the GPL were used for projects like GNU Emacs, laying the groundwork for the formalized GPL we know today.

Why did the GPL's 35th anniversary pass somewhat unnoticed? Perhaps the GPL has become so integral to our software landscape that we take it for granted. It's a testament to the license's success that it has woven itself so deeply into the fabric of free software - much of what we use today relies on the freedoms guaranteed by the GPL.

The true importance of the GPL lies in its core principle. Unlike permissive licenses, the GPL takes a stand. It mandates that any modified or extended version of a GPL-licensed program must remain free software. It's about ensuring that software freedom isn't just granted to the first recipient. Everyone who obtains a copy of a GPL'd program receives the same freedoms - to use, study, modify, and redistribute it. This strong "copyleft" nature makes the GPL a powerful safeguard of user rights.

While it might not have received the widespread celebration it deserves, the GPL's 35th anniversary is a reminder to appreciate the fundamental freedoms it enshrines. Free software has transformed our world, liberating countless people from the shackles of proprietary software, and the GPL has been instrumental in this transformation. Let's take a moment to acknowledge the unwavering commitment to software freedom that the GPL represents - and the countless developers who have contributed to its enduring legacy.