I'm running into a ball of confusion between people on how exactly GFDL limits (or if it does or even can limit) the author's rights.

In our specific case, a copyright holder has provided work to us, licensed under the terms of GNU FDL 1.3. This license specifically allows licencees to redistribute, but limits relicensing of, the work. The copyright holder of the work wants to go on and sell this work to people under different licensing (as part of a book or somethin', so, incompatible with chapter 11).

They're not looking to revoke our rights to the work, we know the license is irrevocable. But we are unsure as to whether the copyright holder has the technical right to go on and sell this work under a totally different license, and who would enforce it if they didn't anyway?

I've tried scouting copyright law for clauses on this, but as one might expect it's rather impenetrable. I feel this should be an obvious question, but at the same time I don't know the law's wording on the alienability of the authors' rights. And I can't find anything reputable online about this.

If a copyright holder distributes their work under the terms of GNU FDL 1.3, can they go on to distribute that work to others under any other license as per their default rights? Can a copyright holder 'waive' their right to redistribute their works under other licenses?

  • 1
    Section 11 does not say what you think it says. If you read it, it gives a specific permission to sites who have FDL-licensed material to relicense that material under CC-BY-SA under specific circumstances.
    – Brandin
    Oct 23, 2018 at 14:27
  • 1
    If you are the copyright holder for the entire work you can license it under many licenses. This is commonly called 'dual licensing', though in reality as the copyright holder you can license your own work as many times as you want (0, 1, 2, 3, ...).
    – Brandin
    Oct 23, 2018 at 14:46
  • This would be better on opensource.stackexchange.com. Oct 23, 2018 at 15:21

3 Answers 3


The copyright holder is free to release the work under whatever licenses the copyright holder wants, in the absence of a contract saying otherwise. A copyright holder could sign a contract not to release under another license, but otherwise I don't see why he or she would waive the rights. The copyright holder can always decide not to reissue under a different license.

The copyright holder basically retains all rights not specifically signed away. Everyone else is limited to what copyright law allows and to what license terms they have.


Chapter 11 of the GFDL was created for wikipedia, see Wikipedia:Licensing update. Wikipedia was not happy with their choice to use the GFDL, as a creative commons license is more suitable for their goal. But to change the license, they had to ask all contributors to dual license their contributions. That was impossible, because some some contributors could not be contacted any more, or the contributions were anonymous. If they would change the license, they would have to delete all contributions without permissions to dual license it. Chapter 11 of the GFDL does not mention wikimepia, but was created in a way that only wikipedia could benefit from it.

Chapter 11 of the GFDL allowed wikipedia to relicense contributions without the permission of the author, under certain conditions. After the license change, those contributions were dual licensed, both under the GFDL, as under the CC-BY-SA license.

It is no problem to license a work under different licenses. In fact, many authors put work under a restrictive but open license. But when someone wants to use their work, but cannot use that license, they sell it to them.


Any distribution of any work might be copyright infringement unless we know more details. But the only ones having standing to sue for copyright infringement are the copyright holders. So unless the copyright holder is schizophrenic, they won't sue themselves, and in practice they can do what they want with their copyrighted work.

That is unless you have a contract with the copyright holder where for example you pay the copyright holder money, and the copyright holder promises not to distribute that work to anyone in exchange for your payment.

  • As another answer says, the copyright holder always has the option to re- release under different terms unless s/jhe has contracted not to do so. so "Any distribution of any work might be copyright infringement ... " cannot apply to distribution by the holder. Oct 23, 2018 at 15:53
  • You misssed "unless we know more details". Neither the question nor the answer have anything to due with GNU FDL or with any license. The only relevant bit: Only the copyright holder can sue for copyright infringement. And the copyright holder isn't going to sue themselves.
    – gnasher729
    Oct 23, 2018 at 17:44

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