Let's imagine that for a reason the FSF publishes a new version of the GPL (v4) that would basically be a BSD license.

What would that entail for the code licensed under GPL v2 or v3 ?

I refer to the clause of these licenses that allows anyone to move to a newer version of the GPL. (they are not strictly speaking part of the license but are often added to the license by free-software projects).

This program is free software: you can redistribute it and/or modify
it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by
the Free Software Foundation, either version 3 of the License, or
(at your option) any later version.
  • Broadly no, unless the owner changed the copyright status. Can you re-phrase the Question to overcome that barrier? – Robbie Goodwin Mar 26 at 1:35
  • @Barmar No, that question is about what happens once GPLv4 is released, whereas this question is about what sort of GPLv4 could be released in the first place. – Brian Drake Mar 26 at 1:48
  • @BrianDrake No it isn't. That question asks what would happen to projects that are licensed under GPLv3+? That's basically the same as this question. – Barmar Mar 26 at 1:49
  • 1
    @BrianDrake These two questions did prompt me to ask whether FSF could make a new GPL that's not in the spirit of GPL3: opensource.stackexchange.com/questions/11463/… – Barmar Mar 26 at 1:51
  • 1
    @BrianDrake And I misread your comment, I thought you said that the other question was about what sort of GPLv4 could be released. – Barmar Mar 26 at 2:00

The crucial statement there is "terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation".

So yes, if the FSF should decide that a future version of the GPL should look more like a BSD-style license, a software released under GPL v3+ would then be eligible to be distributed under that newer version and exercise the rights accordingly.

So in short: if you fear that the FSF will backtrack on the strong copyleft in any future GPL license, then you should not employ the term "or any later version" but license your software exclusively under a particular GPL version (e.g. the linux kernel does choose GPL v2 only).


If code is licensed strictly under a specific version of the GNU GPL, future versions have no effect for that specifically-licensed code. For code that is licensed under "version 3 or any later version," then recipients could choose to apply (a possibly more permissive) GPLv4, whenever one comes into existence, and enjoy whatever permissive terms that new version affords.

Indeed, this is not a pure hypothetical: the FSF has historically done something similar with the GFDLv1.3. (GFDLv1.3 allowed -- with careful time constraints -- wiki site operators to switch users' works under GFDL1.2-or-later over to the usually GFDL-incompatible CC BY-SA 3.0.) This case was done very carefully, but it does highlight that some action that is disallowed by one version of a GNU license may be allowed in a future version.

You could instead specify a proxy to authorize the use of future GPL versions. The relevant legal mechanism is detailed in section 14 of the GPLv3:

If the Program specifies that a certain numbered version of the GNU General Public License “or any later version” applies to it, you have the option of following the terms and conditions either of that numbered version or of any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. [...].

If the Program specifies that a proxy can decide which future versions of the GNU General Public License can be used, that proxy's public statement of acceptance of a version permanently authorizes you to choose that version for the Program.

So if there is another entity you trust to represent your interests better than the FSF, then you could say

... either version 3 of the License, or (at your option) any later version that is approved by [identity of proxy].


The title says:

Is it possible that a future GPL version removes copyleft?

When we read this together with the body, we find two closely related interpretations:

  1. Is it possible that a future GPL version (say v4) is a non-copyleft licence?
  2. Is it possible that GPLv4 will make works already licenced under GPLv2 or GPLv3 “non-copyleft” as well?

The first question is not so easy to answer, since future GPL versions are supposed to be in the spirit of existing versions, and removing copyleft does not seem to meet this condition. See Is the “similar in spirit” provision of the GPL legally binding?.

But for the purpose of this answer, let us assume that a non-copyleft GPLv4 is released and is considered valid. What happens to works already licenced under GPLv2 or GPLv3?

If the works are licenced under GPLv2-only or GPLv3-only, then, of course, the answer is “nothing”. But if the works are licenced under GPLv2+ or GPLv3+ (that is, the licensor has included a licence notice like the one quoted in the question), then licensees may exercise any permissions granted under GPLv4, including the permission to distribute the works under different licences. That is, the answer to the second question is “yes” (assuming that the answer to the first question is “yes”).

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