Why "Do Whatever They Want" Actually Means GPL

Sun, 16 Jun 2024

Have you ever released software under a permissive free software license, thinking, "I want people to be able to do whatever they want with my code"?

This goal of people being able to do "whatever they want" with the software lies at the heart of the free software movement's four freedoms, and these permissive free software licenses give users those freedoms to use, study, change, and share the software. Strong copyleft licenses like the GNU General Public License (GPL) also allow anyone to use, study, change, and share the software. So what's the big difference? The GPL adds one crucial condition: any modifications or derivative works must also be released under the GPL. It's a defense against someone not letting others "do whatever they want" with the software.

Consider this scenario: without the protection of a strong copyleft license like the GPL, someone could take your software and release a proprietary version. In this scenario, they alone would have the freedom to "do whatever they want" with the software, effectively stripping away the freedoms you intended for people to have. The GPL, on the other hand, ensures that the freedom you grant is not just for a select few, but for all users of the program.

If you truly believe in letting people "do whatever they want" with your software, I hope you realize the GPL is your strongest ally and think of the GPL as a way to deliver on that promise. When you release your software under a copyleft license, you're not just giving freedom to the current users; you're ensuring that future users will also have the same freedom to use, modify, and distribute the software, no matter how it evolves. If you think about it, using a strong copyleft better fits the goal of letting the users "do whatever they want" with the software because it ensures that you're providing that freedom for all users of the software so that all users can "do whatever they want", not just some of them.

So the next time you choose a license for your software, think carefully about what "do whatever they want" means. If you want to ensure everyone has the same freedoms as the original users, then the GPL is the way to go. You might be a copyleft advocate without even realizing it!