The Debian Project's discomfort with the GNU Free Documentation
(GFDL) has been clear for some time. To Debian developers (and
many others), the GFDL is not a free license for a few reasons:
- The "invariant sections" requirement allows an author to designate
parts of a document which cannot be changed or removed. This
requirement has a clear and transparent purpose: it keeps people from
circulating copies of GNU documents which lack the GNU Manifesto and
related text. Invariant sections are obnoxious at best; it is, for
example, impossible to use a chapter from one of the emacs manuals
without dragging along many pages of unrelated material. At worst,
invariant sections are non-free, since they restrict the right to create derivative
works. Almost nobody (outside of the Free Software Foundation) uses
invariant sections (and the related "cover texts") in GFDL-licensed
- The GFDL contains a section intended to keep manuals from being locked
up in digital restrictions management systems. That section is so
broadly written, however, that some people believe it disallows
storing a GFDL-licensed manual on an encrypted filesystem or even
setting the file permissions on the manual to disallow world-read
- The requirement that "transparent" copies of a document (think "source
code") be distributed with "opaque" copies strikes some as being
overly onerous. The license seems to require users to download
transparent copies whether or not they want them.
Debian position statement on the GFDL for more information on why the
project objects to this license.
Debian developer Anthony Towns recently circulated a proposal for a general resolution (since updated) on the
GFDL. The resolution would reiterate the project's objections to the
license, and generally bring the issue back into the foreground.
Previously, the developers had agreed to let GFDL-licensed documentation
slide so as to not delay the Sarge release. That release is now out, and
the Etch release is planned for December of this year. As things stand
now, the project will not be able to release Etch until all non-free
documentation has been removed - and that situation is unlikely to change.
The Debian folks would like to see this problem solved by the FSF, which
could make it vanish by releasing an updated version of the GFDL. The
transparent copy and DRM items seem amenable to easy fixes, leaving only
invariant sections to worry about. Even in the absence of a change of heart on
invariant sections, fixing the other issues would make documents which lack
such sections free. Tweaking the GFDL to allow the removal of invariant
sections would solve the problem completely.
Given that version 3 of the GPL is due to be unveiled (in draft form) on
January 16, it is probably safe to assume that the FSF is not devoting a
great deal of attention to tweaking the GFDL at this time. The FSF has, in
fact, proved quite resistant to making any changes to that license even
when there weren't other things going on. So a new GFDL before the
scheduled Etch release seems unlikely.
So, it is probable that there will be a mass purge of
GFDL-licensed documentation from the core Debian distribution. That
documentation will then languish in the non-free area, where Debian folks
will routinely sneer at it.
This purge will affect any free software project whose code is shipped by
Debian, and which has documentation licensed under the GFDL. As it
happens, there are a couple of smallish projects which fit that
description, called KDE and GNOME. Both of these projects will have to
find a way to address Debian's concerns, or see its code shipped without
the accompanying documentation.
The projects are starting to think about this issue. Recently, Jordi
Mallach posted a call for discussion on the
GNOME desktop-devel list, and Isaac Clerencia posted a very similar message to kde-devel. In fact,
the messages are so similar that one must conclude that the level of
cooperation between the two projects is higher than generally imagined. In
both cases, two options are presented: (1) create new
documentation-free tarballs, or (2) relicense or dual-license the
existing manuals so that Debian will see them as being free. The
dual-licensing idea is the one which is recommended.
The initial response in both projects has been somewhat unsympathetic to
the Debian project's position. It seems fair to say that quite a few
developers (and authors) don't really see a problem in need of a solution -
especially since neither project makes use of invariant sections. A GNOME
developer suggested that it was up to the
Debian project to either get the GFDL changed or to deal with every author
to get the licensing changed on their works. A KDE developer has flat-out refused to consider dual-licensing
his work. There are people in both camps who have problems with the GFDL,
but it appears that bringing about a licensing change will be hard to do.
So there does not appear to be an immediate solution at hand, and the
chances are good that Etch will ship without a great deal of
documentation. Debian Etch users will have to get their GNOME and KDE
manuals at the same time they stock up on MP3 encoders, libdvdcss, and that
Flash plugin they swear they never use. It's not the end of the world;
that documentation remains readily available. But it is an example of what
can happen when we are not sufficiently careful in our choice of licenses.
Picking the wrong license can lead to trouble down the road, and it can be
a hard choice to change.
This episode could also have been avoided if the FSF had been a bit more
responsive to the feedback it sought when the GFDL was released in draft
form. Most of the objections one hears now were voiced then, but they had
no effect on the final wording of the license. One can only hope that the
GPLv3 project, which begins next week, will produce a more
generally-acceptable final result. The stakes in that case are
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