The formatting issues described in this question on Stack Overflow (backtick ` at the start and a single quote ' at the end of the quotes) do also appear in the GNU GPLv3 license text (plain text & markdown version):

The hypothetical commands `show w' and `show c' should show the appropriate parts of the General Public License.

Could I fix this issue in a copy by replacing the backticks with single quotes although it is not allowed to edit the license?

Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.

Or does verbatim in this case allow formatting the text this way?

  • Related: opensource.stackexchange.com/questions/6322/…
    – Brandin
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 3:52
  • So the changes are in the appendix of the license, which is not part of the license itself but must be included?
    – gilex
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 8:04
  • If you read the requirement exactly, it says "Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies of this license document." The document itself is composed of different sections, one of which is titled "Terms and Conditions" (i.e. the actual GPL terms) and another which is titled "How to Apply These Terms to Your New Programs" (i.e. you don't strictly have to do the things in that section to comply with the GPL, but in my opinion, that section is still part of the document itself).
    – Brandin
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 8:11

3 Answers 3


Could I fix this issue in a copy by replacing the backticks with single quotes although it is not allowed to edit the license?

In principle, this kind of change would probably not be forbidden. 'Verbatim' means word-for-word or using exact words. By changing one punctuation mark to another, you are not changing, nor adding, nor deleting any words, so I would reason that your version still qualifies as a verbatim copy.

However, the change you propose may be unnecessary in this case. The GPLv3 is already available officially in multiple formats, including Markdown. The official formats are at GNU - Licenses - The GNU General Public License.

The official MD version fixes the issue in a more conservative way by using an escape character to escape the special meaning of the backtick character. Notice that the official version performs this escaping only in places where it is technically required (escaping is not required when using this character in a blockquote).

  • Wikipedia uses a similar definition of verbatim: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/… (point 3 under "legally questionable") While the changes may not be necessary in a technical manner, I would argue that they fix apparent unintended behavior (backtick was meant to be rendered as single quote)
    – gilex
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 8:06
  • 5
    With respect to the license, as long as you reproduce the document verbatim (i.e. word-for-word), then legally speaking it's probably OK. In an extreme example, even if you transcribe the document by hand word-for-word using pen-and-ink, or even if you read the entire GPL aloud and distribute such an audio version with your product (as allowed by GPLv3 s6a), then such alternate formats of the GPL would still count as a verbatim copy (IMHO). Note that the GPL requires the sources themselves to be "machine-readable", though, so transcribing the source code by hand would not be allowed.
    – Brandin
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 8:32
  • 6
    Changing punctuation marks can of course change the whole meaning, as the famous Simpsons clip demonstrates: "Springfield’s local mall-based lawyer Lionel Hutz has an ad that promises, “Works on contingency, no money down,” which he corrects to read, “Works on contingency? No, money down!”"
    – pipe
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 17:28
  • 2
    "escape ... backtick": I believe that hits it on the head. The use of backtick and apostrophe is a typesetting convention in UNIX-derived document preparation software which has caused decades of problems for technical writers using other packages, and the important thing is to go to the original material and determine whether a single quote pair is intended or literal grave and acute characters. With the usual caveat that I am not a lawyer, I believe the important thing is to preserve the intent that a particular word or phase be set off as a quotation, not that it be 7-bit ASCII monospaced. Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 6:45

I am not a lawyer and I don't know if there is case-law around such changes, but I would expect that changing those back-ticks to regular quote characters would be allowed.

You are not changing the meaning of the text in any way, but only the presentation of it. In that way, this change is comparable to changing where the line break occur in order to have the text fit the width of your display area. To my knowledge, that re-flowing of a document is not considered a modification that is disallowed by copyright.

For the markdown version, the argument is even stronger than for the plain-text version, because de back-tick has a special meaning within the markdown format that could adversely affect the showing of the GPL license document.


This is complex to answer because while in your case changing the punctuation does not alter the interpretation, there are cases when this alters the meaning completely:

Man eating fish (image credit).

enter image description here

Man-eating fish (image credit).

enter image description here

Due that I would really look for, or ask if not found, the official translations or use escape codes if technically possible to have identical visual rendering.

  • My favorite from the "Commas Save Lives" department: "Let's eat, Grandma!" vs. "Let's eat Grandma!" Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 13:54

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