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Section 14 of the GPLv3 says:

The Free Software Foundation may publish revised and/or new versions of the GNU General Public License from time to time. Such new versions will be similar in spirit to the present version, but may differ in detail to address new problems or concerns.

and

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.

Is the statement that new versions will be similar in spirit legally binding on the FSF? Suppose someone releases software under "GPL 3 or any later version". Then GPL version 4 is published, and they feel that it violates the spirit of GPL 3. "Similar in spirit" seems like a very subjective matter, would they have a cause of action against the FSF?

Given the kinds of freedoms allowed by the GPL, it might be difficult to prove damages even if the new version violates the spirit, so maybe this would be moot.

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  • This provision is not unique to version 3; similar provisions exist in version 2 and even version 1. But the wording of the second quote is different and the section numbers are different. The quotes should be attributed to section 14 of GPLv3. Mar 26 at 4:35
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    I hope this provision is similar in spirit to the analogous ones in v2 and v1. :)
    – Barmar
    Mar 26 at 13:37
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    Probably goes without saying, but anyone who is in the process of choosing a license for their project, and notices themselves pondering about this, should probably just drop the "or any later version" and stick to just GPLvN, period. (For some fixed N of their choosing.) I wouldn't exactly be surprised if some people thought that GPLv3 was already somewhat dissimilar in spirit to GPLv2.
    – ilkkachu
    Mar 27 at 21:15
  • @ilkkachu Good point. Maybe the "or any later version" option is mainly expected to be used by GNU projects that are promulgated by the FSF itself, since revisions are coming from the same organization as the software being licensed.
    – Barmar
    Mar 27 at 23:59
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    @Barmar, well, I'm not sure. IIRC the "(at your option)" has been there in the "how to use this license" part of the license file since ever, without really any comment about it. I always got the impression that FSF wanted people to use that phrasing. (And well, why not? It makes sense that they'd want to encourage people to do things in the way they think is right, even if that changes at some point in time.)
    – ilkkachu
    Mar 30 at 13:42
5

Such a license term is clearly not legally binding on the FSF, since FSF is not a party to the license. But the “similar in spirit” clause may limit how the “or any later version” clause can actually be used.

Scenario:

  • Abby the author publishes a work under GPL-3.0-or-later.
  • The FSF publishes a hypothetical GPL-4.0 license with unreasonable terms, e.g. requiring a donation to the FSF before the software can be modified.
  • Ufuk the user wants to use Abby's work in a manner that requires a license, e.g. in order to publish a modified version. Ufuk can choose the following licenses that Abby seems to offer:
    • GPL-3.0-or-later
    • GPL-3.0-only
    • GPL-4.0-or-later
    • GPL-4.0-only
  • However, the meaning of “or any later version” is constrained by S14 GPL-3.0. A new or revised GPL version in the meaning of that paragraph is “similar in spirit”. The hypothetical GPL-4.0 is not similar in spirit, and might not be a new or revised GPL version for the purpose of that paragraph.
  • Thus, there is a somewhat reasonable argument that Ufuk cannot choose any GPL-4.0 variant. If Ufuk were to do so anyway, Abby may be able to successfully sue Ufuk for this breach of the license.

However:

  • This can really be argued in either direction. If it ever comes to such a scenario, it would be a most interesting legal case.
  • While the FSF is not bound by the license (which is solely between Abby and Ufuk), they may have a more indirect responsibility. For example, the license may constitute a promise by the FSF that future versions will be “similar in spirit”. If Ufuk had depended on that promise but then was successfully sued by Abby for a GPL-3.0-or-later violation because of choosing a hypothetical GPL-4.0 variant, then Ufuk might have a case against the FSF.
  • Even though the FSF's judgement is not always the best, they still seem to care about Software Freedom. A successor license that is very different in spirit seems to be unlikely. As past evidence for responsible license updates by the FSF, consider that the GPL-3.0 did not directly include AGPL style provisions which are more controversial. Instead, they made AGPL-3.0 into a separate license, and created a GPL-3.0 → AGPL-3.0 upgrade path.
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    I understand that the FSF's goals generally preclude making such drastic changes to the GPL. The hypothetical that the question is based on would presumably require some kind of takeover by people with a different agenda.
    – Barmar
    Mar 25 at 19:55
  • Even though there's no contractual relationship, it seems like someone using the GPL as their license is a kind of "customer" of the FSF. The FSF is a vendor making this product available for use, and making a statement about its fitness for that use. Is there no obligation on their part to fulfill their claim that they won't change it substantially in future versions?
    – Barmar
    Mar 26 at 13:43
  • @Barmar That is an interesting legal theory which I'm in no way qualified to discuss. But I think it's a bit of a stretch that the FSF would have liability for the consequences of its license. In particular: no one is required to use this license upgrade clause. If you're concerned about the FSF's future direction but still want license upgrades, appoint a different license steward to decide what is compatible and what is not.
    – amon
    Mar 26 at 15:26
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    @Barmar An example of how this could be handled is Creative Commons. The CC BY 4.0 legal code says: “Creative Commons gives no warranties regarding its licenses, any material licensed under their terms and conditions, or any related information. Creative Commons disclaims all liability for damages resulting from their use to the fullest extent possible.” (other CC licences have similar disclaimers) But the GPL seems to have no equivalent to this. Mar 27 at 8:12

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