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What Is the General Public License?

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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 17 December 2014
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In September 1983, freedom activist Richard Stallman, then of MIT, announced the GNU (pronounced gee-noo) Project. The idea behind GNU was to create a repository of operating systems and software programs freely available to all. Unlike restrictive copyright protections, Stallman’s copyleft license, or the General Public License (GPL), stipulates how GNU software may be used and distributed. The most basic principles are that the code of GNU software and any derivatives and software be freely available, and that users are free to modify the code.

Two years after announcing the GNU Project, Stallman launched the non-profit Free Software Foundation (FSF) to support the GNU movement and to enforce the terms of the General Public License. Over time the GPL has gone through three revisions, with GPLv3 being current as of June 2007. Most open source software today uses the GPL, though Stallman, a stickler for terminology, does not use the term “open source” but “freedom software” or “free software” to evoke values of freedom in the user, the cornerstone of his socio-political activism.

In addition to the General Public License, the FSF has also published three additional licenses: the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) and the GNU Affero General Public License (GAGPL). These licenses are used in specific situations where additional circumstances call for modification of GPL terms. For example, the LGPL is used when GNU software is linked by software libraries to copyrighted or proprietary software.

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The first operating system created through the GNU Project, appropriately named “GNU” was merged with independent work being done by Finnish American Linus Torvalds in 1991, resulting in the Linux kernel. There are now dozens of GNU/Linux operating systems available in a variety of flavors and types from desktop systems to portable systems suitable for a bootable memory stick or Live CD. GNU/Linux operating systems or “distros,” which is short for distributions, are protected from copyright restrictions by the copyleft General Public License.

In addition to operating systems, the GNU project and the open source community continue to develop free software to run on GNU/Linux, Mac® and Windows® systems. Most GNU/Linux distros come complete with installed software for doing everything from spreadsheets to word processing, from email to surfing, from ripping music to video and photo editing. Virtually anything that can be done in proprietary operating systems can be done on a GNU system, though there are typically fewer programs to choose from within each software category relative to Windows software.

While GNU software is generally free, nominal fees are sometimes charged if, for example, one requests a CD of a program or purchases a retail boxed package. There is typically a way to get the program for free in digital form, however, via binaries, torrents, or other forms of file sharing.

Stallman remains an outspoken and dedicated proponent of free software, pushing the GNU Project and General Public License internationally. One success includes the 2006 adoption of GNU/Linux in 12,500 schools in India.

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