does a free license make software free?

Ben Finney ben at
Mon Oct 15 01:25:39 UTC 2007

On 15-Oct-2007, Albert Dengg wrote:
> On Mon, Oct 15, 2007 at 12:15:48AM +0100, MJ Ray wrote:
> > If it's 100% yours, who could force you to fulfil the obligations?
> the license gives rights to your customer that can be fought for in
> court

The license is not a contract. The recipient of the work has certain 
freedoms, but has *no* power over the copyright holder.

The copyright holder gives a unilateral grant of license to the 
recipient under certain conditions; if those conditions are not 
fulfilled, the recipient loses their license and may be sued. The 
copyright holder is *not* bound by any conditions of the license.

> (this has already happend for the gpl)...

The only "fighting in court" over the GPL has been suing those who 
*received* license from others who held copyright in the work. The 
copyright license, GPL or any other, gives no one the power to sue the 
copyright holder over their own work.

> and as the customer has gotten your software under the gpl from you 
> you are obliged to fullfill its terms

Only if you received the work in turn from someone else under that 
license. This is not the case for the copyright holder; the law 
guarantees *all* copyright freedoms unconditionally to the copyright 
holder, regardless of what license they have granted to others.

> lets put it that way: your recieve a binary of some sort acompanied 
> with a licence statement that this software is licenced under the 
> gpl and so on (we now the text) and maybe a similar note in the 
> about box.

Is the binary received from a party who holds copyright in the entire 

> the licence clearly grants the right to ask for the source code (to 
> put it simple) and also grants you the rights that we all now.

The only party who would be bound by such terms is someone whose 
freedom to redistribute comes from the GPL. The copyright holder in 
the work has that freedom automatically, without having to fulfil any  

> so why should the original author not be forced to hold to that 
> license

Because he does not require any license beyond what is already granted 
under copyright law.

> he after all granted them.

Yes, and copyright law vests that power in the copyright holder alone. 
The copyright holder may then grant any of those freedoms, under any 
terms they like, to other parties. This does not impact the copyright 
holder's continued right to exercise all those freedoms in the work.

In summary: The copyright holder always has the rights granted under 
copyright law. They can grant those rights to others under specific 
terms, but the copyright holder is not themselves bound by those 

 \     "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to |
  `\          persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." |
_o__)                                                      —Carl Sagan |
Ben Finney <ben at>
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