“Copyleft” refers to the notion that certain computer programs and software can be passed on to other users. These users may then be granted access to the program, software, or source code in terms of:

  • Use
  • Copying
  • Reproduction
  • Examination
  • Modifications

These rights are allowed under the agreement that any redistributed programs or software are also passed along to subsequent users with the same distribution terms and stipulations (i.e., the “copyleft” terms). Thus, users can access and use material that might otherwise be restricted due to copyright issues.

The term “copyleft” is a play on words of the original term “copyright”. It implies the opposite effect of a copyright. Laws governing copyrights place limitations on those who do not own the copyright for the program or software, thus providing exclusive usage and distribution rights for the copyright holder. In comparison, a copyleft provision allows others to use the program, provided they follow the distribution terms of the agreement. This creates something of a “chain” of free usage for subsequent users.

How Does Copyleft Work?

Copyleft works by first identifying what program or software is in question. From there, the owner of the copyright may make the program available, but will attach additional legal documents to the program. These documents, known as the “copyleft provisions,” outline how the program can be used, and under what terms it can be distributed.

Copyleft terms or documents are not an abandonment of copyright privileges, but rather a tailoring of the copyrights to allow usage in a very specific manner. In some respects, copyleft is similar to a copyright license, in that it allows a person or party to use copyrighted material. However, licenses often revolve around one-time usages, whereas copyleft has more to do with the rights involved with the reproduction and reusing of programs.

In the past, software was often made available for free by simply submitting it into the public domain. The problem with this is that any person can then use the software and alter it, thus presenting a different program from what was originally intended. Copyleft provisions serve to preserve programs while allowing them to be distributed.

What Are Some Legal Issues Associated with Copyleft?

As mentioned above, copyleft provisions are not an abandonment of copyright terms, but rather a narrowing of their scope. Violations of copyleft provisions can lead to legal issues and disputes. These can disputes can involve:

  • Confusion with a contract or disclosure agreement
  • Actual infringement upon the owner’s copyright privileges
  • Use of a backwards “C” enclosed in a circle, which must be the standard “C” that is enclosed in a circle to denote that the program or software is in fact copyrighted (a backwards “C” has no legal effect)
  • Failure to follow the copyleft distribution terms

Legal consequences for a copyleft dispute can involve monetary damages for any lost profits due to a violation. Also, failure to follow copyleft distribution terms can effectively “break the chain” of valid redistribution of a program, thus limiting access to the program for future users. Violations will of course depend on individual copyleft terms as well as state laws.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance with Copyleft Issues?

Copyleft is a relatively new phenomenon. It is quite specific to the software industry and may not apply to other copyrighted works, such as music or literature. You may need to hire an intellectual property lawyer in your area if you have any questions, issues, or disputes involving copyleft. Your attorney can research laws to determine what type of legal action is most appropriate for your claim. If you need to file suit and appear in court, your lawyer can provide legal representation and guidance as well during those times.