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If I release software under the GNU GPL v3, and a new version of the GPL is released, can I change the license to the new version if I choose to without having to say "GNU GPL v3.0 or later"?

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  • This already happened with Linux and GPLv2. Linux can't be licensed under GPLv3, precisely because Linux was not licensed as "GPLv2 or higher". Linux is only GPLv2.
    – MSalters
    Jul 20, 2018 at 11:22
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    @MSalters even so, Linux could be licensed under GPL3 any time, just Linus doesn't want to and he's the copyright holder. Jul 20, 2018 at 13:13
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    @leftaroundabout Sorry, but no. Linus does not hold the copyright on the vast majority of Linux. Jul 20, 2018 at 14:58

2 Answers 2

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If you are the copyright owner then you always have complete freedom at any time to change the license to anything you want. (This only affects people who download the project after the change, those who downloaded it before can continue to use it under the old license.) If other people have contributed code and there are multiple owners then you need to get everyone's approval to change the license.

"Or later" phrases allow other people to adopt a later license without you doing anything. In doing so you put your trust in the writers of the license that they won't fundamentally change it.

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    Of course it's possible to do something a little more complex - have the code itself licensed under GPL3.0 only, but have code contributors agree in advance to allow you (the project owner) to make the ultimate decision to change the licence to any later version of the GPL.
    – Muzer
    Jul 20, 2018 at 10:02
  • @Muzer: This is surely an option, but it creates an imbalanced power dynamic where you have special rights that other contributors don't have, even if they become equal or primary contributors in the future. This is something to consider. Jul 20, 2018 at 15:51
  • @R.. agreed, and I wouldn't do such a thing myself! I'm just making clear that it's always an option.
    – Muzer
    Jul 20, 2018 at 15:52
  • You could also have contributers agree to allowing such a change, but require that a vote of some sort be taken in order to actually do it. Not sure how you would word this legally, but it is an option that doesn't give one person an unfair increase in rights when compared to other contributors.
    – 3D1T0R
    Jul 20, 2018 at 18:39
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As curiousdannii said you can always release your own code under another license, even if it's incompatible with a license you used earlier. Furthermore, specifically with GPL versions, the FSF recommends that programs say “Version 3 of the GPL or any later version”, and in that case you can effectively even relicense other people's code under a new version: namely, if you use some code that's licensed under GPL3 or newer and combine it with any own code under GPL4, the resulting project will be under GPL4, legally speaking (even if most of the code still says GPL3).

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