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Debian GNU/Linux to Declare GNU GFDL non-Free? 466

Syntaxis writes "There's some considerable argy-bargy in progress over whether or not GNU's own GFDL is a Free documentation license at all. At issue are "invariant sections" which cannot be removed from derivative works. Check out the thread culminating in the proposed motion to take action. The current consensus on Debian-legal does indeed appear to be that one of the FSF's own licenses is non-Free under the terms of the Debian Free Software Guidelines! Well, documentation for GPLed projects countermanding the very freedoms embodied in the GPL certainly seems insane to me."
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Debian GNU/Linux to Declare GNU GFDL non-Free?

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  • Lack of pragmatism (Score:5, Informative)

    by Eloquence ( 144160 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @11:09AM (#5768667)
    People who choose the FDL usually know little about its specifics -- they just want their documentation to be available under a copyleft license. Thus, virtually all FDL documents are free of invariant sections. Instead of condemning the license outright, a pragmatic approach would therefore be to define a threshold of invariant content (say, 20%), after which a document is no longer considered free. The FDL is the standard license for free, open content (see also Wikipedia [], perhaps the largest open content project), and ostracizing it entirely will get us nowhere.

    Upon reading the post, however, what I see is a bean counter mentality that can really be dangerous to open source projects as a whole. I shudder at the thought of hundreds of package maintainers being contacted to deal with this "license issue", which is really a non-issue to anyone with some common sense. This time would better be spent working on real problems -- it's not like Debian has none of those ...

  • by Mendax Veritas ( 100454 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @11:09AM (#5768668) Homepage
    You obviously don't understand what the Debian project is all about. It isn't just a Linux distro; it is specifically a free software distro. They don't want anything that isn't free-as-in-liberty. That's why they have the licensing rules that they do.
  • by BJH ( 11355 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @11:10AM (#5768670)
    In case you didn't realise, any works completely of your creation can be used in any way you like, as you're the sole copyright holder.

    So the only case where you wouldn't be able to take a work you've released under GPL and include it in a closed source application is where you've either (a) originally taken source that was under GPL or similar and added to it or (b) applied patches from people where those patches were supplied in the understanding that the resulting app would be released under GPL or similar license.

    In other words, your comment about releasing your own works into the public domain because it gives you more freedom are wrong.
  • Re:Same with GPL (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mendax Veritas ( 100454 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @11:13AM (#5768679) Homepage
    Either you're trolling, or you don't understand the issue. Of course you can't change the license; that would make no sense. The issue has to do with the fact that the GFDL allows portions of the licensed document to be marked "invariant", meaning you can't change those parts. This is logically equivalent to what you would have if the GPL allowed authors to mark parts of their source code as unmodifiable. It essentially means that the document is not entirely free, but only mostly free. The debate within Debian has been about whether "mostly free" is good enough.
  • by Frater 219 ( 1455 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @11:19AM (#5768704) Journal
    GPL is no more free than Microsoft,

    I'd like to invite you to peruse this article [] in my Slashdot journal, which responds to that very claim. In brief: the overwhelming difference is that "Microsoft" (read: the proprietary/EULA licensing model) places onerous restrictions and risks upon the ordinary user -- not even just the programmer! -- for which there is no equivalent in Free Software.

  • Re:loophole (Score:3, Informative)

    by Idimmu Xul ( 204345 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @11:39AM (#5768787) Homepage Journal

    The GPL allows you to use non-free libraries. Place those six lines in foo.c, GPL foo.h, and like foo.o to your final binary. Don't distribute foo.c with the rest of your app.

    Nah, thats the LGPL. The GPL doesn't let you link against non-GPL libs IIR.

  • Re:how? (Score:5, Informative)

    by demi ( 17616 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @01:02PM (#5769116) Homepage Journal

    You'll see that the FSF is concerned with free documentation [] as well. The problem here is that some people are misunderstanding the invariant section provision of the FDL. As stated in that link, not every piece of writing is the same thing as software. The FDL insists that all the technical instructions be freely modifiable so that someone who creates a derivative piece of software can also modify the manual to keep it accurate.

    However, some parts of a manual might be literary or express an author's opinion. This might be a political opinion ("software should be free") or it could be a technical opinion ("monolithic kernels suck"). But whatever it is it doesn't make sense for the creator of a derivative manual to change those opinions--that would be lying about the original author's intent.

    The FDL recognizes that an author may have the need to guard these sections (remember, they can't have anything to do with the instructions to use the program). It doesn't make the manual any less free.

  • by moonbender ( 547943 ) <moonbender@ g m> on Sunday April 20, 2003 @01:12PM (#5769149)
    Note that Knoppix is way less idealistic than Debian. It's main author, Klaus Knopper, has stated several times - I've followed the discussion - that he always uses GPL'd software if possible, but he also includes freely distributable closed-source (ie. free as in beer; Freeware) software in his distribution. I don't have any examples (don't use Knoppix) and maybe he has found adequate free as in speech alternatives by now, but he's taken a strictly pragmatic approach.
    I'm neither critisizing nor applauding him for that, incidently.
  • by azzy ( 86427 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @01:22PM (#5769192) Journal
    When I finished my MSc last year, I had to publish my thesis, and sourcecode. The university instructued us that the thesis had to claim them as the copyright owners, as they had a claim over our code and report. The lecturers were aware that we would maybe want to contest this, and noted that we'd probably have a fair point as we had never signed away our IP rights.. yet in order to be accepted our reports MUST contain the copyright info as stated, unless a alternative was agreed. I got my course director to accept the FDL as a license on my work in which I claimed the copyright, and I published my source code as an invariant section. As no other license/copyright info appeared on my sourcecode either printed or on disk, I essentially made them unable to claim ownership of it and make modifications.

    Now I don't have any objections to the GPL or freedom over sourcecode in principle, I just didn't want them to claim ownership and rights over it.

    So I was thankful that the invariant clause of the FDL allowed me to restrict the published sourcecode.

    My take on this may be wrong, IANAL, but seemed to be the case, hence why I did it.
  • Re:how? (Score:2, Informative)

    by azzy ( 86427 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @01:28PM (#5769215) Journal
    As I state elsewhere in this subject my MSc thesis was under the FDL, and my results were an invariant section. I didn't want anyone simply changing what results I got to lie about my work. Of course anyone changing the document could add their own results section, reflecting any changes they had made to the program.. the the invariant section was quite important
  • by _|()|\| ( 159991 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @01:52PM (#5769320)
    I see no reason [copyright assignment would be required] unless the FSF wanted the option to release GCC under a license other than their own GPL.

    A company like TrollTech requires copyright assignment so that it can release under a different license. The Free Software Foundation requires assignment so that it can pursue copyright infringement. If infringement occurs for a program the FSF doesn't own, then it has no standing to bring action. Such issues may not concern you, but the enforcability of copyleft is important to the FSF.

  • by foolip ( 588195 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @01:56PM (#5769341) Homepage

    What I think you're failing to see is that there is a very good reason that you must assign copyright to the FSF when you contribute to some of the GNU projects. Should there ever be a legal situation where someone violates the GPL of say GCC by distributing a modified version under a non-free license, the FSF would probably want to take legal action. To do so, it's important that they have the copyright on it all, or all parties who have contributed would have to join in. From the GNU website (

    If you maintain an FSF-copyrighted package, then you should follow certain legal procedures when incorporating legally significant changes written by other people. This ensures that the FSF has the legal right to distribute the package, and the standing to defend its GPL-covered status in court if necessary.

    In other words, it isn't so much an ego-thing for the FSF/GNU, as a practical consideration. Note that there have been historically situations where a contribution made by an entity without assigning copyright has lead to the end of a project. I believe this happened to the original Emacs implementation, and caused RMS to start over implementing it in C. I think this may be one of the reasons he devised the GPL too. Admittedly, it wasn't really an identical situation (different license all together), but it gives you some idea why it might be good idea to control your work.

    As for all your conspiracy theories, I _would_ trust the FSF with my code -- there's no guarantee that the FSF won't become a distributor of non-free software, but I think everyone agrees that's _highly_ unlikely, no?

  • Re:how? (Score:2, Informative)

    by squiggleslash ( 241428 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @02:08PM (#5769398) Homepage Journal
    If it's been "done to death", why are you still unaware of the reasons?

    BSD is largely an independent userland. INIT, GETTY, LOGIN, etc, are from BSD. The shell is ASH, CSH, TCSH, or KSH, all developed either as part of BSD or independently of any project. The 'ls', 'more', 'man', 'cat', etc command line tools were all developed as part of the BSD projects. Only a handful of tools, the *roff typesetting clones and some of the more important development tools (like GCC, but even 'make' by default is the BSD, not GNU version) are from the GNU project.

    That's why BSD isn't GNU/BSD.

    Debian, and most versions of the operating system popularly known as "Linux", has a userland that's pretty much entirely GNU save for the very rare exception. init, getty, login, bash, ls, more, cat, make, plus the GNU tools BSD uses, are all from the GNU project.

    That's why Debian is GNU/Linux, and why many people feel the operating system popularly known as "Linux" should be refered to as GNU/Linux.

    It has nothing to do with agreeing with the FSF or not. If your operating system is primarily GNU, it's GNU. If it's not, it isn't.

  • by dark-nl ( 568618 ) <> on Sunday April 20, 2003 @03:14PM (#5769640)
    Imagine this scenario: someone takes your book which is dedicated to Martin Luther King, then adds a lot of useful stuff to it, and then attaches a rant explaining how Adolf Hitler is much cooler than King and the original author was a wuss for choosing the wrong person to dedicate the book to. And then makes that rant an Invariant Section.

    Now you can't use any of that new documentation in the next version of your book, unless you're willing to take the pro-Hitler rant as well. But the other person is free to take your new material, as long as he is willing to take any new Invariant Sections you add. This is the opposite of what copyleft is supposed to achieve.

    None of this would be an issue if the GFDL allowed removal of Invariant Sections.

  • by demi ( 17616 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @03:32PM (#5769724) Homepage Journal

    The FDL doesn't cancel existing fair use doctrine--in general short excerpting or commenting on a copyrighted work is fine, just as you can quote a book in a review of it. If the excerpt's not short (namely if you are copying large parts of the manual) then I think it's reasonable to have to include invariant sections. Elsewhere [] on this thread I pointed out that excising something can change the meaning of the whole just as modifying something can.

    A third solution for your excerpting would be to incorporate the other manual by reference ("see section 12 of the GNU make manual") or whatever.

    Not to put words in your mouth, but I anticipate an objection on the basis: "who's to know what fair use is?" There is a FAQ [] on fair use that helps, but the fact is that fair use is based on judgment, not absolute rule.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 20, 2003 @09:09PM (#5770945)
    Most proponents of open source and freely distributable software of all kinds recognize that commercial software also has an important place in the world. But the FSF does not. Its licenses are designed to discriminate, and therefore do not conform either to the Debian defninition or the OSI definition. This isn't a matter of ideology; it's a matter of fact.

    The OSI doesn't agree with your 'facts', as the GPL is prominently acknowledged in their list of approved licenses []. And rightfully so, because, other than you, the OSI *did* put a lot of thinking into their licensing approvals and the Open Source Definition. Perhaps *you* should get your facts straight first. Troll.
  • by Magdiragdag ( 183399 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @09:23PM (#5770997)
    Actually, there seems to be consensus on debian-legal that a document released under the GFDL without invariant sections is indeed free.
    However, if you want your document to be available under a free licence, then the GFDL without invariant sections might not be a good idea. The reason is that someone else could add something interesting to your document (good) together with some invariant section (annoying). Now you, the original author, are not allowed to use the addition without also incorporating the invariant section.
  • by juhtolv ( 2181 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @10:12PM (#5771162) Homepage

    Let's see, what FSF says about it: r eeDocumentationLicenses

    Yes. It can be used as free documentation licence. Debian uses it as licence for their WWW-site:

    I use this kind of licencing for my non-software works:

    My poetry is released under Design Science Licence. Stylesheets of my WWW-pages and certain WWW-pages are dual-licenced: You can use GNU FDL or DSL.

  • Correcto. (Score:2, Informative)

    by mindstrm ( 20013 ) on Sunday April 20, 2003 @11:36PM (#5771433)
    That's kind of my point.

    Forget the license for a second.
    Say you take my source, modify & distribute it.

    I can claim copyright violation, because you do not have my permission to distribute & modify.

    Now, say my original work was available under the GPL to you. (or any other license I choose, but you never asked me)
    IF you chose to not follow the terms of the GPL, or if you didn't know about it, but distribute anyway.. the situation is no different: you are violating copyright law.
    You are NOT violationg the GPL.. because you never agreed to it in the first place. Following it's terms is one way you can get around me charging you with copyright violation.

  • by Peter Eckersley ( 66542 ) on Monday April 21, 2003 @05:28AM (#5772132) Homepage
    The FDL doesn't cancel existing fair use doctrine--in general short excerpting or commenting on a copyrighted work is fine, just as you can quote a book in a review of it.

    IANAL, but this is legal advice :) --

    The "fair use" doctrine of exceptions to copyright is not international. There might be a few countries outside the US which have something comparable, but not many.

    Extracting parts of a work to review it is more likely to qualify for fair use (or its weaker cousin, fair dealing, which is common in the former British empire), than using it for some other purpose (such as writing new documentation).

    The GFDL should definitely have a section explicitly allowing small excerpts (without invariant sections), regardless of local copyright law. It should possibly even allow large excerpts on the condition that the final document isn't really trying to achieve the same purpose as the original.

  • by Steeltoe ( 98226 ) on Monday April 21, 2003 @12:28PM (#5773866) Homepage
    I do, however, think that the GPL restricts developers while "freeing the source".

    That's the whole point: When the software is Free, nobody can take the source under their rug and release proprietary versions. It is the software which should remain free, not the developers, since FSF people like RMS is interested in the development of good, open, quality software which anybody is allowed to fix - not to get filthy rich on proprietary secrets and hold the world hostage. The philosophy behind it states that to create the best software, the optimal solution in a copyright-world is the rules of Free Software which bends the existing laws in favour for openness of source. It is a very Software-centric idea, not people-centric at all. However, it tries to give as much power to people too, without degrading software freeness.

    If you want more freedoms as a developer, just use the BSD license. It ain't evil, but don't complain if a big company uses your code as Microsoft did with FTP.exe. They have permission from you through your choice of license. At that point, it's sharing, not "stealing".

    You don't however, have the permission to use the GPL in a non-free way. The authors chose to use the GPL because they want YOU to contribute BACK to their project and the world at large, not steal the code and get filthy rich on THEIR efforts.

    This might inconvinience you, but that is also a goal, because it means you have to rethink your priorities.

    Nobody is forcing you to support either side in this war, but it's important to stick with the truth and good reasoning. No matter which side of the fence one is on..

    As long as people regards sharing information as "stealing", I'm glad there are efforts today that favour sharing. We can thank RMS for being a head-figure for this, if not a tad eccentrical.

The absent ones are always at fault.