From Copyright to Copyleft: All Wrongs Reserved

Infringement of copyright is major drawback in the digital age of internet. With time, it has gradually become easier to infringe intellectual property rights, and at the same time, it has become harder to prevent others from stealing an individual’s original work. A “copyright” is a legal right given to the authors/creators of original works and it bestows upon them to decide how and when those works can or cannot be copied, modified, and distributed by another person. If an individual violates this right of the owner by using, selling or distributing an original work without prior permission of the owner, it leads to infringement and as a result, the copyright-holder is entitled to seek legal action.

The purpose behind copyright is that the creators restrict what is being done with their respective work and a prior permission must be obtained for using it. Copyleft licensing exists within the legal framework of the concept of copyright. Copyleft licences are in a way subsets of copyright licences, and the idea behind this is to re-establish freedom of users.

Copyleft: Meaning and origin

Copyleft has been defined as “licence granting general permission to copy and reproduce intellectual property. Where copyright protects society’s interests in invention and creativity by providing individual incentives through copyright control, copyleft protects social interests in knowledge creation by vesting copyright control in a large general community. The concept of copyleft is central to many programming projects, and the licence is most commonly used for software, digital art, writings, and other creative content”.1

The GNU Project gives this simple definition of copyleft: “the rule that when redistributing the program, you cannot add restrictions to deny other people the central freedoms (of free software)”.2

The term “copyleft” has been derived from the term “copyright” itself. As per this concept, copies of one’s work are open for distribution, access and modification as per the other person’s requirements, on precondition that the edited work shall also be made available for free and the same rights shall be maintained as the work goes forward.

In essence, a copyleft work is open for distribution and amendments on a condition that the work resulting from such copyleft content shall be free and available as well as accessible within the public domain. The term “copyleft”, for the first time, was by used Li-Chen Wang during late 1970’s in his Palo Alto “Tiny BASIC’s distribution notice”. In this, he wrote that “@copyleft all wrongs reserved” as opposed to “copyright: all rights reserved”. However, it was merely a term and no literal or interpretive meaning was accredited. Tiny BASIC was only a free version of a basic computer programming language.3

The concept of copyleft as we know today, was given by Richard Stallman in his GNU manifesto in 1985. GNU was originally an operating system, sponsored by the “Free Software Foundation” founded by Richard Stallman in 1984. He was denied access to an improved software by “Symbolics”, on which Richard worked. This inspired Richard Stallman to generate a licence which is unrestricted to be acquired and work on without changing the original source code of the program. As per Richard Stallman, “this was a win-win situation for everyone because in this manner improvements can be made without changing the original piece”.

Copyright and copyleft: A comparison

Contrary to the symbol of copyright, “copyleft” is represented by a reverted illustration of the copyright symbol. In other words, it is a mirrored image of copyright and hence, in terms of its meaning. Copyright essentially refers to a right bestowed upon the author of an original work to reproduce, distribute, and commercially manipulate the work. It is pertinent to be noted, copyright is a negative right that prevent others from using the “copyrighted work” without prior consent or authorisation of its owner.  Copyright law amply acknowledges an author’s original work and reserves him the privilege to utilise or conceal it at his personal discretion. On the other hand, copyleft gives author the right to use or distribute the work without any constraints and also to pass on the rights to amend the work, on one term that “the copylefted work cannot be copyrighted and the modified work will also be available freely for the public to use and work”.4

Purpose of copyleft

The main purpose behind copyleft is to facilitate future users of works with the same freedom to modify or manipulate an original work. After obtaining a copyleft licence, an individual shall be free to manipulate and amplify work. By employing the way of copyleft, future users are afforded the same rights. For instance, a poem is composed and disclosed within a copyleft licensed community. One of the licensed user then copies the poem. They use the poem as lyrics for a song and add drumbeats and guitar sound. Another user takes up this song and adds different instrument sounds in the background. Under copyleft, all of this would be legal and available for future modification by another person without obtaining any prior permission from the original creator.

This is the way in which copyleft works. People who are a part of the licensed community can without any constrain of legal recourse use and have their works used and modified. This concept is very lucrative in the field of software and technological spheres which majorly involves coding. This is frequently how innovations are discovered. This not only encourages development of a code within a community for enhanced efficacy but also facilitates updates in regard to software programs on time, technological bugs and advancements which are discovered by active users ultimately getting rid of legal boundaries and constraints resulting in more creative discoveries.

Legal validity of copyleft

As per the surveys many non-proprietary software, under their contractual mechanism, rely on copyleft licence. For using a copyleft programme, an individual has to follow the licence agreement, given before allocating software for copyleft. The concept of copyleft is beneficial as it facilitates the public and puts no restrictions on a user to utilise the software on the terms of the creator of the original content. A user may modify it according to his personal use. In the field of software development programmes too, the copyleft licence has a vital role in linking the software developers with common public. Furthermore, there are many different types of licences of copyleft out of which most popular type of licences are General Public Licence and Lesser General Public Licences.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the purpose behind copyleft is not completely alien to the concept of copyright. However, the two drastically differ in the rights and freedom given to the creators and users to alter and refashion the original work without apprehension for legal retribution. The concept of copyleft carries with itself the impact of modernisation in the digital age. Giving out information freely to be used, is a sign of how society is evolving and defying the long existing concept of ownership by private players. However, this concept should only be enforceable if the owner/creator of the work agrees to such terms and conditions. It should not be made obligatory and so, must be harmoniously aligned with other provisions pertaining to intellectual property.


*Fourth year student, Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur, e-mail: choudharyanushka99@gmail.com

1 <https://www.britannica.com/topic/copyleft>.

2 <https://www.gnu.org/licenses/copyleft.en.html>.

3 <http://www.linfo.org/copyleft.html>.

4 K.G. Kumar, Beyond the Market, Freedom Matters, (2001) Vol. 36, No. 36, Economic and Political Weekly.

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