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"?

  • 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 '18 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 '18 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 '18 at 14:58

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 '18 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 '18 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 '18 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 '18 at 18:39

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).


Just to express a contrarian opinion about licensing your software with an "or later" clause, you never know exactly what that next version of the gpl (or whatever license you use) is going to say.

I'd certainly expect it to remain in the same spirit as previous versions, but nobody guarantees that. For example, although silly and inconceivable (at least I hope so), gplv5 might say that if anybody has problems with your software, then you'll either fix it within 30 days, or else you'll have to pay them money.

So my point with that exaggerated example is simply that "or later" could conceivably mean >>anything<<. Instead, just release your software specifically and only under gplv3 (assuming that's what you currently have in mind). Later on, if you like some future gplv4, just release another copy of your software under that license, and users who really care can just download a new copy. That could be line-for-line exactly the same code, just edited comments specifying the new license.

This way, you're not obligating yourself under some yet-to-be-written licensing agreement whose terms are unknown. You might not be entirely happy with them. You can never know exactly which way the world is going to turn.

  • 1
    This doesn't seem to me to answer the question.
    – MadHatter
    Jul 23 '18 at 13:16

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