Can the author of software make it proprietary after making it gpl?


1 Answer 1


Yes, the author (or whoever holds the copyright) can do as they please, changing the licence at will. But anyone who already received a copy under a free licence continues to enjoy the rights that accompanied it; the author cannot take those away merely by ceasing to distribute further copies under the same terms.

Case in point is SSH: It was open source up to version 1, version 2 (clearly a development on version 1) is closed. OpenSSH took version 1 (still open source) and created an extension handling the new protocol, released as open source.

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    "what was distributed under an open source license stays forever open" I'm not sure that's entirely true. It's perfectly possible for me to take code to which I own the rights, and which I was distributing under (say) GPLv3, and instead start distributing it under a proprietary licence. People who have already got it from me are completely entitled to continue to use it under the terms of GPLv3, and distributing it themselves (under GPLv3) should they wish to. But I am not obliged to continue doing so should I choose not to. However, that's a fine point, and mostly I agree with you.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Jul 18, 2019 at 9:00
  • @MadHatter, a license gives the recipient certain rights (in the open source license cases, it includes the perpetual right yo modify and distribute). The author can't just take that away.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 14:58
  • The author (well, rightsholder) can't take that away from people to whom (s)he has already given it, I agree - but (s)he is completely free to stop giving those rights to future recipients of the code.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 15:06
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    I completely agree there's no practical difference, assuming you (wanting a copy of the code under the original licence) can find an earlier recipient thereof, and they agree to give you a copy. It's a fine point I'm making, as I think I've said already - but to say the rightsholder can "only close up later versions" is, at least, ambiguous. Some people think that once you've distributed foo-1.1.1a under GPL you are obliged always to do so, and that's simply not so.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Aug 4, 2019 at 15:16
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    @vonbrand well, since you asked... hopefully the above is more precise, though I don't think it reads anything like as well as what you originally wrote.
    – MadHatter
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 6:18

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