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I made a bit of GPLv2 archaeology for some work I do to help clarify the Linux kernel licensing. In doing so I found at least six versions of the GPL 2.0 texts published by the FSF over the years. There are likely several more as the one used in Linux is yet another version... and I did not even look at the HTML versions (ignoring tags and formatting of course).

In light of this, what can I make of the requirement to reuse and distribute the GPL text "verbatim"? which version GPL 2.0.1 or GPL 2.0.6? or any version?

While I reckon that the minor typo, date and address changes are not material, the change of "Library" to "Lesser" measn that some versions of the GPL 2.0 reference different versions of the LGPL (2 == library and 2.1+ == lesser) and that is material.

For reference, here is the history of the GPLv2 file changes I rebuilt. And a narrative of the sequence of changes could be summarized this way:

  • GPL-2.0.4 v5. The most recent one was published after the GPL 3.0 publication 1. It refers to the Franklin Street address and to the GNU Lesser General Public License top and bottom

  • GPL-2.0.3 v4. Slightly after the HTML publication of the new address in v3, the address was changed in the text version 6: It refers to the Franklin Street address and to the GNU Library General Public License top and bottom.

  • GPL-2.0.2 v3. The previous one in force before the publication of the GPL 3.0 came about the time of the FSF office move on May 1, 2005 to Franklin Street 7 In this HTML version, it refers to the Franklin St address and uses the GNU Library General Public License at the top and GNU Lesser General Public License at the bottom with a conflicted opinion on which one of the LGPL 2 or 2.1 version to use.

  • GPL-2.0.1 v2. Around December 2003, a variation was published 8. It also pre dates the move to Franklin and it refers to the Temple Place address and the GNU Library General Public License at the top and GNU Lesser General Public License at the bottom. Still split on confused about which LGPL version to recommend.

  • GPL-2.0.1 v1. The one true and only original GPL 2.0.... the oldest cached version 9 predates the move and it refers to the Temple Place address and the GNU Library General Public License throughout.

  • GPL-2.0.0 "the one" [...] In digging further, I found the ONE true original GPL with a file time stamp on June 2 1991, 01:50 (AM?, PM? unknown time zone?) ! in an old GCC archive.

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    Very interesting. But could you perhaps summarize how these versions differ? Are the changes only presentational (e.g. line wrapping), or are there changes in the text of the license? E.g. I don't think presentational changes would matter with respect to "verbatim" reproduction. – amon Dec 8 '17 at 10:03
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    A requirement to reproduce it verbatim does not mean you cannot upgrade the license. For example, the difference between COPYING.1 and COPYING.2 is to update the FSF mailing address, fix a typo, and fix some whitespace issue. The typo might have technically been non-verbatim copying (assuming the official version did not have the typo), so fixing that typo would simply be bringing it into conformance. – Brandin Dec 8 '17 at 11:12
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    Part of the license text says "you can redistribute it ... either version 2 of the License, or (at your option) any later version.". The changes you describe seem to mean that the authors of Linux took the option to upgrade from the then-current version 2 to later versions of version 2. – Brandin Dec 8 '17 at 11:43
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    @Brandin That is not part of the GPL terms, but part of the appendix which suggests how the GPL may be used. Notably, the Linux Kernel does not use this clause to allow later GPL versions. – amon Dec 8 '17 at 12:00
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    @Brandin My answer below argues that these edits did not affect the actual license, so no “GPL v2.x” exists. While Linux could not change the license without consent from all copyright holders (would never happen), it can use a different license document containing that license. – amon Dec 8 '17 at 13:32
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These changes are not material: The license document and the license are different entities.

The GPLv2 document has the following structure:

  • The name and version of the license.
  • The copyright and a license for the license document: “Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.”
  • A preamble that explains free software philosophy.
  • The GPL terms and conditions, including a disclaimer of warranty. This is the actual license.
  • An appendix on how to use the license.

Of these sections, only the Terms and Conditions form the legally relevant part of the license. The rest is explanatory.

None of the changes you found show non-presentational changes within the terms and conditions. So all of these versions contain precisely the same license. This license was merely embedded into different documents. This document was updated over time to point to correct external resources, such as the FSF's address and the related LGPL.

Since the license document is copyrighted, no one except the FSF may make such changes. You may distribute any of these versions verbatim. When the license states that you must “give any other recipients of the Program a copy of this License along with the Program”, this likely refers to the document version present in the source code. (The license in the source code cannot be the license without the preamble/appendix since extracting only the terms would be a derivative work of the document, which is not allowed.)

Changing the document to different published document version seems unnecessary. But since all document versions contain the same license, it seems unlikely that using an updated document version would violate the license.

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