A Guide to Copyleft – the Way to License Selflessly


Copyleft is a way to license created digital content so that it’s fluid, unrestricted and beneficial to all. Learn how it works and some of the benefits that come with it.

What Is Copyleft?

Copyleft is NOT the opposite or inverse of copyright – it’s in fact similar to it. Copyleft is an element of copyright licensing best described as a shared license. It allows users to benefit from software programs so long as those same users allow others to benefit from the software in the future.

A rubber stamp that reads 'copyleft'.
Copyleft is free for public use.

Most people who stumble upon copyleft assume it’s a joke about ‘copyright’ or they think it’s a copyright opposite. However, copyleft is a complex way that users and creators share digital content such as software programs and other technology. They have a vision that involves a long term benefit to everyone who uses their digital invention.

So what are some of the key details of copyleft licensing? Here’s a comprehensive guide.

What Is the Purpose of Copyleft?

Copyleft certifies that its content remains free for the public to benefit from, edit, share and save. It further ensures that the content and all works that develop as a result remain unrestricted throughout its existence. With copyleft, no one user or company has an unfair advantage over other users.

A black stamp that stamps 'copyleft'.
Copyleft is a charitable licensing decision.

Think of copyleft like the concept of paying it forward – for example a penny jar at a store. The only expectation of the original sharer of the jar is that it remains a circulatory benefit for everyone who needs it. The only rules attached to the jar is it’s taken from when needed (if a patron is short of change for their transaction). Similarly with copyleft, the creator wants their content to be used by all – not maintained, hoarded and restricted by one benefactor.

With that cleared up, let’s take a look at three important copyleft benefits – including how it benefits businesses.

1. Sophisticated Customization

Copyleft gives wider freedom to customize a software program and make adjustments with less legal ramifications than copyright. The freedom this provides pushes creativity and furthers efficiency. Because of this, users improve licensed products legally. This creates a more open, free-flowing community. copyleft material unclutters some of the hard restrictions from copyright content – maximizing potential customization.

Copyright symbols fighting each other.
Copyright is much more restrictive licensing than copyleft.

For businesses, copyleft programs are edited, changed and improved to benefit customers. Companies who purchase copyrighted material are at the mercy of the original creator for upgrades. With copyleft, unique updates from numerous different users are possible. This is often more valuable because users who upgrade the software have altruistic interests, which ensures everyone benefits.

2. Reduced Technical Support

Direct technical support doesn’t exist for copyleft programs. If a user or company needs to resolve an issue with their programs, they look to alternative sources. The immediate benefit of a one-time fix is it’s much cheaper than a firmly licensed program which requires extensive technical support.

A picture of abandoned headsets.
Tech support is lessened with copyleft.

When it comes to fixing problems, the creativity of users working together creates the best possible solution. Copyleft allows users to create bugfixes and share them with other users. Meanwhile, updates of a copyrighted problem are strictly regulated and enforced. Furthermore, they often overlook specific user needs and situations when handling security fixes. Finally, these type of bugfixes and updates are unregulated and unrestricted.

3. Progressive Presence for enterprises

A company’s choices speak volumes, including to its own current and potential employees. Similar to ‘going green’, going copyleft is a way for a company to create a progressive atmosphere. Implementing open material signals a company is willing to give freedom to use its creations.

A copyleft symbol.
Copyleft tells a positive story for companies.

This acts as a self-promotion of a company, signaling to potential clients and customers an enlightened view by a company. A relevant example is businesses that use hybrid vehicles as a standard. This notifies customers and future employees the company’s brand positioning. Using copyleft software offers a similar signaling.

Copyleft is a subdivision of copyright that benefits and helps rather than restricts. Keep it in mind when deciding what types of licenses would best fit your latest technological development.