Affero General Public License Version 3

The Free Software Foundation sent out a press release today announcing a new addition to the FSF stable of licenses: the Affero General Public License or AGPL. The FSF has also published a set of answers to anticipated questions in the GPL FAQ.

The first paragraph of the release explains what the AGPL is:

This is a new license; it is based on version 3 of the GNU General Public License (GNU GPLv3), but has an additional term to ensure that users who interact with the licensed software over a network can receive the source for that program. By publishing this license, the FSF aims to begin fostering user and development communities around free software web services and other network-oriented software.

The GPL is designed to ensure that users of software have access to the source code — source is prerequisite to freedom and to the type of collaboration that has made free software successful. However, the GPL doesn’t say "users" when it talks about who gets freedom; instead, it references people to whom the software is distributed. It doesn’t say users for two reasons. The first is that, under copyright, "distribution" is a much more meaningful term and a powerful hook than "use" which is not, in most cases, one of the copyright holder’s exclusive rights. The second is that, until very recently, having a copy of software was prerequisite to using it; possession was prerequisite to use.

Things have changed. A large part of many people’s computing experience involves running web applications. These include email clients (e.g., GMail or other webmails), office applications (e.g., Google Docs), social network systems, and others. These applications all run on servers — i.e., on other people’s computers. The providers of these services, the Googles and the FaceBooks, build upon, modify and improve GPL software without giving back to their users or the community that they took their software from.

The AGPL was created several years ago by FSF board member Henri Poole as a way to address this issue. The license took the form of the GPLv2 with one extra clause. It was a first stab at a license and was imperfect. The language and methods were clunky and, most problematically, the license was incompatible with software under the GPL.

The new AGPL is based on the GPLv3 and the extra clause has been rethought and rewritten. It has been vetted using the GPLv3 comment process and dozens of insightful comments from dozens of lawyers, hackers, and users of free software have been incorporated. The new license fixes the issues that many folks — including myself — had with the first version of the license. More importantly it can now be linked to GPLv3 code which makes the license a whole lot more practical.

I am quoted in the release being excited about the license and I really am. I’ve got 2-3 major development projects (including Selectricity) which I’ve been waiting to distribute so that I could do so under the AGPLv3.

The AGPL isn’t a complete answer to the problem faced by disempowered users of web services. Without data or the capacity (in terms of servers, money, and expertise) to run web applications, the state and quality of these users’ freedom remains far from clear. Thankfully, there are a whole bunch of folks thinking about what freedom for users of services might be — it’s a conversation that I’m going to push the FSF to participate in and pursue moving forward. The AGPLv3 marks a first solid contribution to the process of answering that question. If you’d like to help supporting or assisting the FSF in this effort, please consider becoming an associate member or donating.

7 Replies to “Affero General Public License Version 3”

  1. This is extremely good news; thanks for keeping us up to date, Benjamin.  I have been concerned about the liberty of software in an ever-increasingly software-as-a-service world, and I’ve been hoping for a license just like this.  I’m glad that it has been vetted and is actively maintained by the Free Software Foundation; I believe that their promotion of this license will do a lot to encourage FLOSSians to avail themselves of this license where it is appropriate.

  2. One question: has it been discussed whether the source-publication clause of AGPL is enforceable under copyright law?

    As I understand it, all GPL licenses are based on copyright law, which allows the authors to argue that a contract was not necessary, but I’m just having hard time seeing how running a modified version of script on a server could be covered by copyright. I see that a very good argument can be made that it’s not private use, but as long as copies are not being distributed, do they need permission from copyright owner to use the code in this way?

    I looked at the FAQ but it didn’t seem to cover that point, so I was wondering if this point ever came up (after all, it’s hardly an original thought) and what the answer was.

  3. Andrzej: Of course. This aspect of the license uses private modification as the copyright hook. Private modification, like distribution, is the exclusive right of the copyright holder.

  4. James: There is no doubt in my mind that it does meet the DFSG. Several Debian people, including myself, spent time on the issue during the GPLv3 process and the current license satisifies all of those people. I was a lot less sure about the AGPLv1 but changes have made to address the substantive critiques.

    Of course, some people on debian-legal have suggested that the GPLv3 (and even the GPLv2 if it weren’t explicitly OKed) are no DFSG compliant so I’m sure it won’t please absolutely everyone.

  5. Mako: excellent to hear. I was somewhat concerned to read your post on Planet Debian and not have the DFSG-compliance explicitly mentioned.

  6. I was excited by this news, but have read and been told some worrying things that throw the enforceability of the AGPL into question. It makes me worry whether the license is solid enough to release my work under.

    Are you certain that “Private modification, like distribution, is the exclusive right of the copyright holder.”?

    This Slashdot comment mentions some cases that dispute that:
    <a href=”″></a&gt;

    I would really like to see the FSF specifically address concerns like these (the enforceability question has come up on a lot of mailing lists since the release a few days ago).

    It would be great if the FSF could hold another Q&A session.

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