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IFL | 26.03.2005 05:13 | Analysis | Education | Technology

Copyleft is a term you're likely to hear a lot more about in the future as more people embrace the concept of copylefting their material, whether written, audio or visual material. So what does it mean?

Copyleft is a term you're likely to hear a lot more about in the future as more people embrace the concept of copylefting their material, whether written, audio or visual material. So what does it mean?

The easiest way to understand what it means is to firstly understand how copyright came about and what it really means.


The concept of copyright was first introduced in Britain and brought in to force by the Statute Of Anne in 1710 ( This gave authors certain protections over their work which had previously been in the hands of the publishing houses. It also allowed certain freedoms over the use of a work after it had been published and sold, which again the publishing houses had previously controlled. In 1886 the concept of copyright was made international by the Berne Convention ( which set an international standard between nations. The Berne Convention is still in force and is the basis of all modern copyright law. Under the terms of the convention once a work is completed and released into the public domain via some form of medium, book, film, website etc., the creator of the work is granted an all exclusive right to the work and any other works derived from it. The author doesn't have to apply for the work to be copyrighted, it is automatically granted copyright once it is made available to others.

Copyright laws can have subtle differences depending on the country and origin of the author, particularly concerning the duration in years that a work is copyrighted for. This can make the whole field of copyright confusing. However the basic rights granted to an author or creator are that they alone can:

- make and sell copies of the work
- import or export the work
- make derivative works
- publicly perform the work
- sell or assign these rights to others

There are some exceptions to the exclusive rights held by the author. In the United States this comes under the heading of Fair Use ( while in the UK there is a more restrictive right of Fair Dealing ( What they both allow is the restricted use of parts of a work for criticism, review or educational purposes.


Anti-copyright is largely a political statement as it has no actual basis in law. It's not recognised as a legitimate way of distributing material. It does however allow the author or authors to exercise a moral right to denounce the concept of property accorded under the Berne Convention. Many anarchist works and publications use an anti-copyright notice in this way. A typical anti-copyright notice will say something along the lines of:

@nti-copyright. Please distribute this material freely.

What the above doesn't do is remove the creators rights under the Berne Convention. In law the work is still copyrighted and the author maintains the rights accorded by copyright law. A copyright waiver which addresses each of the exclusive rights such as the right of attribution, naming the original author or linking back to the article can be created but seldom is.

There's a lot of confusion concerning anti-copyright and its legality. For instance by waiving all rights is the author leaving their work open to corporate abuse, or to be twisted out of context by critics without the right of reply? Can someone else claim an unedited work as their own? The answer is no because their property rights are still intact. Although it would be morally difficult to exercise them having in theory already denounced them. An interesting dilemma which brings us to the concept of copyleft.


Copyleft has its roots in the open source movement ( where computer programmes are released to peers so they can be worked on and improved in a collaborative way. A well known example of copyleft in action is Linux, a free open source project which can be built upon as long as the terms of the original copyleft license are incorporated into any improvements or derivative works.

What copyleft does is to offer the original creator and the authors of any derivative works the opportunity to exercise some rights as opposed to all rights. Copyleft has now spread beyond the computing world to the creative community at large. Examples of copyleft licenses include the GNU General Public License - GPL(, the GNU Lesser GPL ( and the free ShareAlike licenses issued by Creative Commons (

This document is an example of how copyleft works in practice. This article and all news articles on ( are licensed using a creative commons copyleft license unless otherwise stated. In this case it is the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license ( Under the terms of the license you the reader are free to:

- copy, distribute, display and perform the work
- make derivative works
- However the following conditions apply:
Attribution: you must give the original author credit
Noncommercial: you may not use this work for commercial purposes
Share Alike: if you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.

Unlike an anti-copyright notice copyleft is recognised in law and is enforceable. However any of the conditions can be waived by the copylefter if you get permission. For example if someone wanted to use this article or part of it for an anarchist publication or website I would happily waive all the conditions. If however a mainstream or corporate body wanted to use any of it I would maintain all the conditions and ensure credit was given and that it was distributed using a copyleft license and for non profit use.

Now can you think of a good reason not to copyleft your work? It's free, it's easy to do, it maintains the integrity of your work by ensuring it remains free and for non profit use, and not least it directly challenges the existing copyright laws and their emphasis on private property rights.

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Display the following 14 comments

  1. Do I want to copyleft my work? — sceptic
  2. sceptic about scepticism — optimismo
  3. Fantastic — squatticus
  4. art for art's sake — sceptic
  5. Changing times — Neil
  6. minima opera — sceptic
  7. on which planet? — blinded
  8. an old story — art historian
  9. copyright — sceptic
  10. Mamma Mia — Luther Blissett
  11. Sceptic: "a book" — squatticus
  12. if you prefer — sceptic
  13. Copywrong — Septic Wrongcopiers
  14. The new book by Sceptic... — Hermes