According to general public definitions, "general public" means "everyone". Yet the GPL seems to be entirely concerned with the freedom to make changes to software.

  • few software users care about modifying software

  • few of those who care have the ability to actually do it

  • few of those who have the ability have the incentive to go through the steps to do it

How can the GPL claim to be intended for the general public, or take its interest and freedoms at hearth, yet though its oblations caters exclusively to the needs, abilities and resulting "freedoms" of a rather tiny and niche part of the general public (to which the author of the license belongs)?

I'd like to stress that I do not consider "Because it says so" as a valid answer. Making a discriminatory public offering doesn't make it any less discriminatory just because it is being offered to the public.

Due to allegations that "I have misinterpreted" what the GPL name stands for on merit of putting imaginary delimiters in arbitrary places - that is not the case, as mentioned several times already, my interpretation on what the "general public" stands for is based on the content of mission statements, philosophies and whatnot.

From the top of the FSF "about" page - literally the title and the very first sentence :

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a nonprofit with a worldwide mission to promote computer user freedom. We defend the rights of all software users.

As our society grows more dependent on computers, the software we run is of critical importance to securing the future of a free society...

"Worldwide", "all software users", "free society" - all of those strongly imply the general public, and nothing of what other users have suggested it may mean.

So perhaps a more interesting and insightful question will be why in the world would the allegedly competent and authoritative community on this site have such a hard time acknowledging something so obvious, so as to compulsively downvote absent provisional information, and meticulously seek to come up with pretty much any other possible combination of interpretations. That is so anti Occam's razor...


1 Answer 1


Software licensing agreements are typically expressed through contracts between one licensor and one licensee (even though the same contract is typically offered to multiple recipients).

In contrast, Open Source licenses like the GPL provide permissions to everyone to use, share, study, and modify the software for any purpose. Thus, this is a "public" license.

You are correct that only a small fraction of the public has the skills to modify software. However, the license also gives permission to use and share the software. That "sharing" part was especially relevant back when software was commonly shared between users on physical media like floppy disks or CD-ROMs. But regardless of whether a recipient exercises these rights, it is important that the rights are there.

For example, OpenOffice was published mostly under the LGPL license. Most OpenOffice users did not have the skills to work on the code. But when the OpenOffice project stagnated after Oracle took over, the license gave developers the ability to fork the project and continue it under the LibreOffice name. LibreOffice continued to fix many security issues, improved compatibility with document formats, and added new features. Thus, end users benefited massively from the right to modify the software, even if they didn't personally exercise that right.

In German copyright law, gratis public licenses (including Open Source licenses) have special recognition since 2002. Authors typically have a right to equitable compensation, which cannot be contracted away. “The author may, however, grant to all a non-exclusive right of use free of charge.” This is known as the “Linux clause”.


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