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The last paragraph of the GPL v2 notice reads:

You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License along with this program; if not, write to the Free Software Foundation, Inc., 51 Franklin Street, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301, USA.

My questions roughly: why is the mailing address included here (instead of say email address, or website), and for what purpose are they saying 'write to'?

If I did not receive a copy of the GPLv2 with 'the program', and I wrote to that address, are they going to send me a copy of the license or is their intention to try to get the original developers to include the license? (Or something else)


Edit July 2022: I actually wrote to the address and received a reply. I've posted about it here

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  • "for what purpose are they saying 'write to'" - The text says "if not, write to" which means "if [you did] not [receive a copy of the GPL], write to".
    – Brandin
    Jul 26 at 14:29

1 Answer 1

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It may help to remember that version 2 of the GNU GPL was published in June 1991. According to Wikipedia, only 11% of people in the developed world had internet access in 1997, and I can assure you that in 1991 it was very much fewer than that. Most university research users had it, though often not undergraduates; outside academia, it was really quite unusual to find access either from work or from home.

You could in those days still buy all the GNU software on tape, from the FSF, and I have personally worked for companies that chose to do that. Since those weren't cheap, but the software itself was free, many people would snarf a copy from someone else, who'd got it from someone else, who'd got it from their milkman (joke); or you'd call a friend who was doing a PhD at somewhere with a good connection, and they'd FTP down a bunch of sources and stick them on a tape for you; or you'd get a floppy from a friend, which had enough space for the source you wanted, but not much more than that (1.2MB on a good day, until those super-wizzy three-and-a-half inch discs came in).

Under those circumstances, it was quite common to unpack source tarballs full of .c files that started

Copyright (C) yyyy name of author

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 2 of the License, or (at your option) any later version.

This program is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.

You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License along with this program; if not, write to the Free Software Foundation, Inc., 51 Franklin Street, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301, USA.

but which contained no actual copy of the GPL, because it had become detached at some point in the delivery chain. If that happened to you, and you weren't familiar with the GPL - which was a pretty revolutionary licence when it was written - then you'd need to know your rights and obligations, which meant getting a copy of the GPL. If you really couldn't get a copy anywhere else, you could get one by writing to the FSF, enclosing an SAE or International Reply Coupons if you were well brought-up, and they'd send you back a copy of the GPL. It was a public service they offered, to help spread this revolutionary idea of copyleft.

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  • 18
    This is much better than the answer I was writing, so I'll just note (1) the header is borrowed unchanged from GPLv1 in 1989 (except the version number) when there were even fewer people online and (2) if a modern-day recipient needs the FSF's help in locating a copy of the GPL when they abound online, surely an email address would be useless to such an offline recipient anyway. (That just so happened, historically, to be nearly everyone circa 1990, but the solution to the problem, insofar as it still might exist, remains unchanged.)
    – apsillers
    Mar 7 at 18:52
  • 2
    Out of curiosity, if the FSF ever ends up moving out of that building, will it have any real influence on the license or will it just become a piece of obsolete information likely updated in newer revisions?
    – MMM
    Mar 8 at 12:49
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    @MMM They have moved. When the license was originally written the address for the FSF was 59 Temple Place, Suite 330, Boston, MA 02111-1307 USA. AFAICT there have been no problems arising from this.
    – Smitop
    Mar 8 at 14:44
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    Thank you very much for that explanation, especially with your context and actual experience that was very useful to learn. That would explain why their later versions of the license simply have a URL. You also sent me on another rabbit hole about International Reply Coupons, and sadly I found out that my country's postal service stopped those in 2011.
    – Mendhak
    Mar 8 at 18:31
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    Note also that the FSF's currently recommended file header for GPLed software (sadly lacking in fragment IDs -- scroll down to "The license notices") refers people who lack a copy of the GPL to the appropriate page on the FSF's website, not to any postal address. They have also made this change to the "how to apply these terms" appendix to the current text of GPLv3. They probably should update the text of GPLv2 as well.
    – zwol
    Mar 8 at 22:37

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