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I've seen in multiple places project owners choosing to stick with GPLv2 to prevent the FSF from releasing a license that the project owners don't agree with but I've never seen reasoning beyond the claim that the next GPLv4 could be disagreeable. Are there any real licensing dangers associated with this ability to seemingly change your project's license at will?

For example, if the FSF were to release "GPLv4" and it's just the exact text of the MIT license what would happen to projects that are licensed under GPLv3+? Could they be licensed under the terms of "GPLv4"? Are there restrictions within the GPLv3 that prevent this from happening?

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    I love the reference to the GPLv4 :) Mar 16 '17 at 15:32
  • By definition, if you reject any alternative licence (including a future version of the GPL), then you disagree with it. Therefore, the only possible reason to reject a licence is that you disagree with it, and I cannot tell what “I've never seen reasoning beyond the claim that the next GPLv4 could be disagreeable” is supposed to mean. Mar 26 at 1:39
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For example, if the FSF were to release "GPLv4" and it's just the exact text of the MIT license what would happen to projects that are licensed under GPLv3+? Could they be licensed under the terms of "GPLv4"? Are there restrictions within the GPLv3 that prevent this from happening?

Yes, that is precisely the idea. See The FAQ about GPL:

From time to time, at intervals of years, we change the GPL—sometimes to clarify it, sometimes to permit certain kinds of use not previously permitted, and sometimes to tighten up a requirement.

Those projects could then be used and distributed under the terms of either GPLv3 or GPLv4. The original author of the projects has at some point chosen this by going with the "or any later version" option and there is of course no possibility for the GPLv3 license to somehow prevent the author from doing this.

If you don't think that you will automatically agree with FSF on what is actually an improvement to the license that you chose today it seems a bit risky to go with the "or any later version" option.

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  • Even though I do agree with Bjorn that the "or later" clause is probably in most people's best interest I'm accepting this answer because it discusses the considerations a developer should take when choosing to keep the "or later" clause of the GPLv3. Mar 16 '17 at 15:36
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Section 14 of 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.

Therefore I would argue that a GPLv4 can't be a MIT-like license. Further I would say that "similar in spirit" means that every new version needs to be again a strong copyleft license which only "differ in detail to address new problems or concerns". That's also what we saw with GPLv3, it does the same as GPLv2 adjusted to the technical and legal changes to make sure that the GPL will continue to be a strong copyleft license.

I would highly recommend to keep the "or any later" part or chose one of the other options described in section 14 like for example a proxy. This is crucial for long-term maintainability of the legal side of a project.

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  • -1 for the seemingly unjustified recommendation at the end. If it was so clear-cut, why not build the “or any later version” part into the licence itself, like the MPL and CC BY-SA do? Also, at least one major project (Linux) seems to be doing just fine without it. Mar 26 at 1:42
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Your concern is a legitimate one. When you are licensing a software under GPL v2 or later, or under GPL v3 or later, you are basically trusting the FSF for the future licensing of your software. They can very well use this for very specific purposes and it happened in the past: the GFDL license was updated to allow Wikipedia to switch licenses from GFDL to Creative Commons (cf. https://www.gnu.org/licenses/fdl-1.3-faq.html).

Similarly, when licensing a software under MPL 2.0, the license contains a provision relative to later versions (this provision does not really let the choice to the licensor, whereas the GPL does):

You may distribute the Covered Software under the terms of the version of the License under which You originally received the Covered Software, or under the terms of any subsequent version published by the license steward.

The conclusion is that when choosing to distribute your software under a license of the FSF with the clause "or any later version", or when choosing to distribute your software under MPL 2.0, you have to trust the foundation which authored the license (FSF in one case, Mozilla foundation in the other).

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I've seen in multiple places project owners choosing to stick with GPLv2 to prevent the FSF from releasing a license that the project owners don't agree with

This does not prevent the FSF from releasing whatever licence they like, but it does prevent such licences from applying to the project.

Are there any real licensing dangers

No, except for the danger that the copyright owner will disagree with the new licence.

associated with this ability to seemingly change your project's license at will?

Delete the word “seemingly”: the FSF can change the project’s licence, but only under the following conditions:

  1. It must be done via a new version of the GPL, which would apply to all projects that chose GPLv2+ or GPLv3+, and which would become the recommended licence for most new projects.
  2. Affected projects must have opted into this by choosing GPLv2+ or GPLv3+, as opposed to GPLv2-only or GPLv3-only.

For example, if the FSF were to release "GPLv4" and it's just the exact text of the MIT license what would happen to projects that are licensed under GPLv3+? Could they be licensed under the terms of "GPLv4"?

Yes, that is what the ‘+’ in “GPLv3+” means.

But this only means that any additional permissions granted to the licensee in GPLv4 are available, including the right to distribute modified versions under difference licences. Any additional obligations imposed on the licensor in GPLv4 do not take effect, unless the licensor explicitly licences the project under GPLv4. The relevant text in GPLv3 section 14 is:

Later license versions may give you additional or different permissions. However, no additional obligations are imposed on any author or copyright holder as a result of your choosing to follow a later version.

GPLv2 does not have corresponding text. But the GPL FAQ says:

When you convey GPLed software, you must follow the terms and conditions of one particular version of the license. When you do so, that version defines the obligations you have. If users may also elect to use later versions of the GPL, that's merely an additional permission they have—it does not require you to fulfill the terms of the later version of the GPL as well.

Back to the question:

it's just the exact text of the MIT license

This is an interesting example, because it does not seem to be in the spirit of GPLv3, as required by GPLv3 section 14:

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.

It seems that there is a bit of ambiguity here, as discussed in Is the “similar in spirit” provision of the GPL legally binding?.

Are there restrictions within the GPLv3 that prevent this from happening?

No, this would basically be impossible. The copyright owner is always free to licence the work under whatever other terms they like, unless they grant an exclusive licence. It seems unlikely that a public licence could be an exclusive licence, and it would definitely go against the spirit of free software licences.

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