Chapter 3
Running Software and Verbatim Copying

This chapter begins the deep discussion of the details of the terms of GPLv2. In this chapter, we consider the first two sections: GPLv2 0–2. These are the straightforward sections of the GPL that define the simplest rights that the user receives.

3.1 GPLv2 0: Freedom to Run

GPLv2 0, the opening section of GPLv2, sets forth that copyright law governs the work. It specifically points out that it is the “copyright holder” who decides if a work is licensed under its terms and explains how the copyright holder might indicate this fact.

A bit more subtly, GPLv2 0 makes an inference that copyright law is the only system that can restrict the software. Specifically, it states:

Activities other than copying, distribution and modification are not covered by this License; they are outside its scope.

In essence, the license governs only those activities, and all other activities are unrestricted, provided that no other agreements trump GPLv2 (which they cannot; see Sections 7.3 and 7.4). This is very important, because the Free Software community heavily supports users’ rights to “fair use” and “unregulated use” of copyrighted material. GPLv2 asserts through this clause that it supports users’ rights to fair and unregulated uses.

Fair use (called “fair dealing” in some jurisdictions) of copyrighted material is an established legal doctrine that permits certain activities regardless of whether copyright law would otherwise restrict those activities. Discussion of the various types of fair use activity are beyond the scope of this tutorial. However, one important example of fair use is the right to quote portions of the text in a larger work so as to criticize or suggest changes. This fair use right is commonly used on mailing lists when discussing potential improvements or changes to Free Software.

Fair use is a doctrine established by the courts or by statute. By contrast, unregulated uses are those that are not covered by the statue nor determined by a court to be covered, but are common and enjoyed by many users. An example of unregulated use is reading a printout of the program’s source code like an instruction book for the purpose of learning how to be a better programmer. The right to read something that you have access to is and should remain unregulated and unrestricted.

Thus, the GPLv2 protects users’ fair and unregulated use rights precisely by not attempting to cover them. Furthermore, the GPLv2 ensures the freedom to run specifically by stating the following:

”The act of running the Program is not restricted.”

Thus, users are explicitly given the freedom to run by GPLv2 0.

The bulk of GPLv2 0 not yet discussed gives definitions for other terms used throughout. The only one worth discussing in detail is “work based on the Program”. The reason this definition is particularly interesting is not for the definition itself, which is rather straightforward, but because it clears up a common misconception about the GPL.

The GPL is often mistakenly criticized because it fails to give a definition of “derivative work” or “combined work”. In fact, it would be incorrect and problematic if the GPL attempted to define these terms. A copyright license, in fact, has no control over the rules of copyright themselves. Such rules are the domain of copyright law and the courts — not the licenses that utilize those systems.

Copyright law as a whole does not propose clear and straightforward guidelines for identifying the derivative and/or combined works of software. However, no copyright license — not even the GNU GPL — can be blamed for this. Legislators and court opinions must give us guidance in borderline cases. Meanwhile, lawyers will likely based their conclusions on the application of rules made in the context of literary or artistic copyright to the different context of computer programming and by analyzing the (somewhat limited) case law and guidance available from various sources. (Chapter 14.1 discusses this issue in depth.)

3.2 GPLv2 1: Verbatim Copying

GPLv2 1 covers the matter of redistributing the source code of a program exactly as it was received. This section is quite straightforward. However, there are a few details worth noting here.

The phrase “in any medium” is important. This, for example, gives the freedom to publish a book that is the printed copy of the program’s source code. It also allows for changes in the medium of distribution. Some vendors may ship Free Software on a CD, but others may place it right on the hard drive of a pre-installed computer. Any such redistribution media is allowed.

Preservation of copyright notice and license notifications are mentioned specifically in GPLv2 1. These are in some ways the most important part of the redistribution, which is why they are mentioned by name. GPL always strives to make it abundantly clear to anyone who receives the software what its license is. The goal is to make sure users know their rights and freedoms under GPL, and to leave no reason that users might be surprised the software is GPL’d. Thus throughout the GPL, there are specific references to the importance of notifying others down the distribution chain that they have rights under GPL.

GPL disclaims all warranties that legally can be disclaimed (which is discussed later in sections 8.3 and 8.4). Users generally rarely expect their software comes with any warranties, since typically all EULAs and other Free Software licenses disclaim warranties too. However, since many local laws require “consipicous” warranty disclaimers, GPLv2 1 explicitly mentions the importance of keeping warranty disclaimers in tact upon redistribution.

Note finally that GPLv2 1 creates groundwork for the important defense of commercial freedom. GPLv2 1 clearly states that in the case of verbatim copies, one may make money. Re-distributors are fully permitted to charge for the re-distribution of copies of Free Software. In addition, they may provide the warranty protection that the GPL disclaims as an additional service for a fee. (See Section 12.2 for more discussion on making a profit from Free Software redistribution.)