[FSFE PR][EN] [GNU/FSF Press] Android GPLv2 termination worries: one more reason to upgrade to GPLv3

Brett Smith licensing at fsf.org
Fri Aug 19 17:49:43 CEST 2011

  Distributors lose their rights when they violate GPLv2, but the Free
  Software Foundation is more forgiving in its license enforcement to
  encourage continued participation in the free software community.
  GPLv3 has improved termination provisions to codify this approach,
  giving developers one more reason to upgrade.

Thanks to Android's commercial success, the kernel Linux, which is
released under the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 2, is
being distributed more than ever before.  Whenever someone distributes
GPL-covered software, they must follow a few conditions set forth in
the license.  These conditions try to give anyone who receives the
software both the legal permission and the practical tools necessary
to change and share the software themselves if they wish.

Not all of the companies that distribute Android heed these
conditions.  We've witnessed an uptick in GPL violation
reports--some convincing, others incomplete or
misinformed--against these vendors.  We generally can't pursue
these violations directly, because only copyright holders can enforce
free software licenses in most countries, and few Android devices use
FSF-copyrighted code.  However, people still seek out our opinions
about the relevant parts of the GPL, and that discussion has recently
turned to GPLv2's termination provisions.  Section 4 of the license
says, "You may not copy, modify, sublicense, or distribute the
Program except as expressly provided under this License. Any attempt
otherwise to copy, modify, sublicense or distribute the Program is
void, and will automatically terminate your rights under this

When we enforce the license of FSF-copyrighted software, we give
violators back the rights they had after they come into compliance.
In our experience, developers of Linux are happy to do the same.
Unfortunately, even if we assume they all would restore these rights,
it would be extremely difficult to have them all formally do so; there
are simply too many copyright holders involved, some of whom haven't
worked on the project in years or even decades.

When we wrote GPLv2 in 1991, we didn't imagine that a free software
project might have hundreds of copyright holders, making it so
difficult to get a violator's rights restored.  We want it to be easy
for a former violator to know that they're still allowed to change and
share the software; if they stop distribution because of legal
uncertainty, fewer people will have free software in the long run.
Hence, we created new termination provisions for GPLv3, in section 8
(see <http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-3.0.html#section8>).  These
terms offer violators a simple method to earn back the rights they
had.  Parties who violate the license have their rights restored
provisionally as soon as they come back into compliance, and
permanently if no copyright holders terminate those rights within
sixty days of the last violation.  Furthermore, first-time violators
will have their rights restored permanently if they come into
compliance within thirty days of receiving such notice.

GPLv3's approach has several advantages over GPLv2's.  By having the
license grant forgiveness by default, instead of terminating rights
permanently, it better matches our community's expectations and normal
compliance strategy.  It will be easier for violators to get their
rights restored by any copyright holders who do terminate rights,
because the notice will establish a clear way for the violator to get
in touch.  Finally, GPLv3's termination provisions don't sacrifice
anything we need: the license's conditions still do their best to
protect software freedom, and copyright holders will still be able to
legally enforce the license against parties that don't comply.

This is just one of many reasons why GPLv3 is better than GPLv2.  This
change has already given some companies the reassuring nudge they
needed to start distributing GPL-covered software, and we expect to
see more of that in the future.  When we give distributors a chance to
rejoin the free software community and fix any mistakes they might
make--in stark contrast to most proprietary software licenses--we get
both compliance and more allies.  GPLv3 improves on earlier versions
of the license by codifying that enforcement strategy.  For this
reason and others, we urge developers who are releasing projects under
GPLv2 to upgrade to GPLv3.  Companies that sell products that use
Android can help out by encouraging the developers of Linux to make
the switch to GPLv3.

To learn more about GPLv3's benefits, read our Quick Guide to GPLv3 at

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