What is Copyleft ?

The concept

While copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the creator of an original work which may include the right to copy, distribute and adapt that work, copyleft is the practice of making a creation free in addition to requiring all modifications to be free as well. Adherents of copyleft feel that the general public’s interests would be better served without tight restrictions over the use of works.

Under copyleft (also known as open-source licensing and free licensing), everyone has the right to modify and publish a work, as the original author has relinquished control over it. This idea first took shape in the software community under Richard Stallman in the early 1980’s but has expanded throughout the years being applied in other creative communities such as audio, visual, video, education, and other textual works.

The importance of a copyleft contract

The simplest way to relinquish copyright protection is to put it in the public domain uncopyrighted. This allows people to share the work and their improvements if they are so minded. However, without protection in the public domain, people may make changes, many or few, and distribute the result as their own proprietary product. Anytime a work is placed in the public domain it runs the risk that people making derivative works from the original will copyright the new work transforming it into an exclusive creation. People who receive the work in that modified form do not have the freedom that the original author intended to give them; they must now respect the copyright conditions that have been placed on the creation. This defeats the original intention of placing a work in the public domain.

How to copyleft

Copyleft uses licensing contracts circumvent traditional copyright constraints. The first step in ‘copylefting’ a work is to claim copyright on it. The second step is to state the licensing terms under which the work can be used. Usually, these terms will allow the subsequent user of a work to use and modify it, under the condition that the modified work continues to be freely available for use, modification, and distribution by subsequent users. This way, the original author’s name is protected, and his/her moral rights as well as the free nature of the work are preserved as well. Usually, the modifier will hold copyrights over the modified work, but is contractually bound to keep the work freely available for further distribution and modification.  Therefore, every person who modifies the work acquires a copyright, but continues to be bound by the terms of the original license.

It is important to keep in mind that copyleft refers to a licensing model, not a specific license. Freedoms and restrictions will vary depending on the specific terms in the license used to govern the dissemination and modification of a particular work, so it is important to be aware of the terms of the licensing agreement before modifying any ‘copylefted’ work.