The actual GPL License (that is, the text that contains the words "The licenses for most software and other practical works are designed...") is a document; I would assume therefore that it is under some sort of copyright?

What license is this license licensed under?

That is, if I were to include the body of the GPL License in my own projects (and perhaps create a derivative work) what limitations am I under?

  • It sounds like I'm being silly, but this "conundrum" actually did arise in one of my projects: github.com/IQAndreas/markdown-licenses/issues/4
    – IQAndreas
    May 31, 2014 at 4:27
  • I'd say they probably would have to be licensed strictly enough so that you wouldn't be able to modify the terms of the license and still call it GPL (or a name misleadingly similar the the original name). Note that the people behind these license write them specifically to combat license proliferation, so they wouldn't take it lightly if you contribute into the confusions that ensues from having thousands of similar-but-different licenses. I'd highly recommend to explore other popular open source licenses first before writing your own.
    – Lie Ryan
    May 31, 2014 at 4:43
  • Scrap the last sentence of my previous comment; I think marking up licenses would not fall under that issue.
    – Lie Ryan
    May 31, 2014 at 4:54
  • 3
    The L stands for License. May 31, 2014 at 9:12
  • @user2357112 I was hoping no one would notice that. ;) I left it in for clarity, and also it makes the title "more amusing".
    – IQAndreas
    May 31, 2014 at 9:47

3 Answers 3


The terms under which the text of the various versions of the GPL may be distributed are quite clearly given in the opening lines of the licences:

GNU General Public License, Version 3:

Copyright © 2007 Free Software Foundation, Inc. http://fsf.org/

Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.

GNU General Public License, Version 2:

Copyright (C) 1989, 1991 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
51 Franklin Street, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301, USA

Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies
of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.

GNU General Public License, Version 1:

Copyright (C) 1989 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
51 Franklin St, Fifth Floor, Boston, MA 02110-1301 USA
Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies
of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.

  • 1
    I mistook those lines for being the areas at the top of the document where you fill in the year and your name as the copyright holder. But I can clearly see the second line has the requirements in it.
    – IQAndreas
    May 31, 2014 at 17:21

The standard copyright terms for GNU web pages [and all text contained therein] is the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License. It used to be (and for a few pages still is): Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.

Notice the use of the word "verbatim." The license states that

You are free to:

  • Share — copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format for any purpose, even commercially. The licensor cannot revoke these freedoms as long as you follow the license terms.

Under the following terms:

  • Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.

  • No Derivatives — If you remix, transform, or build upon the material, you may not distribute the modified material.

Kinda makes sense, really. If you want people to use your license freely, but don't want them to alter it, this is the license you would use.


  • 1
    That's the licence they use for web pages as standard, but if you look at the text of the GPL, an indeed the footer of the GNU web page containing the text of the licence, you'll see that these do not seem to be published under the CC licence. (Which should not be especially surprising as the GNU GPL predates Creative Commons by many years.)
    – tobyink
    May 31, 2014 at 13:35
  • @tobyink: Everything on their web pages is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License, which presumably includes the text of the software licenses. If they wanted to exclude the text of the software licenses specifically, I think they would have said so. In any case, it's pretty clear from not only the CC license but also their pages on how to use the licenses that their intent is to let you freely use the text for any purpose, but without modification. May 31, 2014 at 19:22
  • 2
    They do say so. The license or each page is shown in the page footer - see the footer of the page you linked to. It says "This page is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License." On the footer of the GPL3 page, it says "Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies of this license document, but changing it is not allowed." instead, and that page itself does not reference CC-BY-ND at all.
    – tobyink
    Jun 1, 2014 at 8:33
  • @tobyink: I think you're missing the point. The terms in the footer are essentially the same as CC-BY-ND, and FSF does not specifically exclude the license text from CC-BY-ND. As always, if you have any doubts, the FSF is the best source to clear up those doubts, but I think their intent is already crystal-clear. Jun 1, 2014 at 16:42

Let me preface this by saying IANAL.

It might be possible to think of your particular situation of adding mark ups to license text as providing a translation (although from text to Markdown, rather than to another human language), which is regarded as such:

Are there translations of the GPL into other languages? :

It would be useful to have translations of the GPL into languages other than English. People have even written translations and sent them to us. But we have not dared to approve them as officially valid. That carries a risk so great we do not dare accept it.

A legal document is in some ways like a program. Translating it is like translating a program from one language and operating system to another. Only a lawyer skilled in both languages can do it—and even then, there is a risk of introducing a bug.

If we were to approve, officially, a translation of the GPL, we would be giving everyone permission to do whatever the translation says they can do. If it is a completely accurate translation, that is fine. But if there is an error in the translation, the results could be a disaster which we could not fix.

If a program has a bug, we can release a new version, and eventually the old version will more or less disappear. But once we have given everyone permission to act according to a particular translation, we have no way of taking back that permission if we find, later on, that it had a bug.

Helpful people sometimes offer to do the work of translation for us. If the problem were a matter of finding someone to do the work, this would solve it. But the actual problem is the risk of error, and offering to do the work does not avoid the risk. We could not possibly authorize a translation written by a non-lawyer.

Therefore, for the time being, we are not approving translations of the GPL as globally valid and binding. Instead, we are doing two things:

  • Referring people to unofficial translations. This means that we permit people to write translations of the GPL, but we don't approve them as legally valid and binding.

    An unapproved translation has no legal force, and it should say so explicitly. It should be marked as follows:

    This translation of the GPL is informal, and not officially approved by the Free Software Foundation as valid. To be completely sure of what is permitted, refer to the original GPL (in English).

    But the unapproved translation can serve as a hint for how to understand the English GPL. For many users, that is sufficient.

    However, businesses using GNU software in commercial activity, and people doing public ftp distribution, should need to check the real English GPL to make sure of what it permits.

  • Publishing translations valid for a single country only.

    We are considering the idea of publishing translations which are officially valid only for one country. This way, if there is a mistake, it will be limited to that country, and the damage will not be too great.

    It will still take considerable expertise and effort from a sympathetic and capable lawyer to make a translation, so we cannot promise any such translations soon.

  • In Hong Kong, B2C (e.g. a bank account's terms and conditions) contracts issued in English and Chinese will often indicate which language contains the authoritative version in the case of dispute. The impact of British colonialism was that the English version was often the authoritative one.
    – Paul
    May 31, 2014 at 11:40

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