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(Excerpts from an excellent article)
The idea of copyleft originated with über-hacker Richard Stallman in 1983 when he started the GNU Project. In brief, his goal was “to develop a complete free Unix-like operating system.” As part of that goal, he invented and wrote the GNU General Public License, a legal construct that included a copyright notice but added to it (or, technically, removed certain restrictions), so its terms allowed for the freedoms of reuse, modification and reproduction of a work or its derivatives to be kept for all.
Normal copyright asserts ownership and identification of the author, as well as prevents the use of the author’s name as author of a distorted version of the work; it also prevents intentional distortion of the work by others and prevents destruction of the work. But it also carries other restrictions — such as restricting the reproduction or modification of a work.
Copyleft contains the normal copyright statement, asserting ownership and identification of the author. However, it then gives away some of the other rights implicit in the normal copyright: it says that not only are you free to redistribute this work, but you are also free to change the work. However, you cannot claim to have written the original work, nor can you claim that these changes were created by someone else. Finally, all derivative works must also be placed under these terms.