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Debian dumps drivers, documentation

By Jimmy O'Regan

On the 26th of April, the Debian project announced the results of a vote it held between the 11th and 25th of April. The result of this vote is the modification of Debian's Social Contract. Where the social contract had previously read "free software", these references have been changed to refer to free items in general. This change was deemed necessary because several people thought the social contract ambiguous when used in terms of non-software items, such as documentation and content, and items which are not necessarily software, such as firmware.

This decision means that non-free documentation and firmware are to be removed from the Debian distribution, and placed in non-free, which will result in a serious delay in the release of Sarge: the firmware will have to be split from the kernel and the installer rewritten to handle the separate packages. In addition, many important GNU packages, such as GCC and glibc, will not have documentation.

Last month, Debian announced the result of a vote to remove non-free. The vote, conducted from March 7th to 21st, is the result of years of discussion, prompted by rms (Richard Stallman). Unlike most other Linux distributions, Debian has always kept free and non-free software separate. According to section 5 of Debian's Social Contract, however, Debian maintains a non-free section as a convenience for its users. Any software which does not comply with the Debian Free Software Guidelines can be packaged as part of non-free, if it can be distributed at all.

This policy has caused arguments between Debian developers and developers of several open source projects. KDE was not distributed by Debian until KDE 3.0, because the Qt toolkit which KDE is built upon used licenses which were incompatible with the GPL used by many parts of KDE. The most recent loud argument has been with the developers of MPlayer (now resolved), because MPlayer did not include license details, and in many cases did not comply with section 2a of the GPL for projects it included (i.e. did not provide changelogs).

The latest vote was brought about by two main factors: discussions about the GNU FDL (Free Documentation License), and binary firmware in the kernel. The issue of firmware had been known for a long time; Richard Stallman had been concerned about this issue, as it meant Linux device drivers could not be used by the Hurd.

The issue of the GNU FDL is more recent and possibly the most responsible for the recent change. Debian had long ago decided that several of the clauses in the FDL were non-free: Invariant Sections and Cover Texts in particular, but campaigning by members of the Free Software Foundation to have documentation considered differently than software caused more attention to be paid in the examining of this license. A survey taken by Branden Robinson showed that the majority of Debian developers considered the FDL non-free, and Manoj Srivastava prepared a draft Position Statement about the GFDL.

The FDL issue is more easily solved, however, at least in the case of GNU manuals. Debian will most likely start its own project to bring older versions of the GNU manuals, which used a different license, up to date. The firmware issue, however, is the most likely to cause pain among Debian users.

Debian users can be (roughly) split into two categories: those who appreciate Debian's technical excellence, and those who appreciate Debian's stance on free software. Even outside of Debian, users of free software feel the impact of Debian's efforts.

On a technical level, poor comparisons against Debian's apt have driven RPM-based distributions to adapt similar systems for easily downloading a package from wherever it resides (using a merged prioritized list of repositories); and both Red Hat and Mandrake have adopted Debian's alternatives system, which allows multiple packages of a similar nature to peacefully coexist on a system.

On a free-software level, many people have benefited from Debian's campaigning software authors to use free licensing terms. But on a greater level, the Open Source Definition, the document by which open source licenses are judged, is based on Debian's Free Software Guidelines. The license dissections performed on the debian-legal mailing list provide a valuable service to the community, as vague or non-free terms are located and queried.

There's a growing trend among some Debian developers, however, to give less leeway when interpreting licenses.

Three or four years ago, before I was cast back to the land of the modem, I put myself into the New Maintainer queue, to become a package developer. I passed the test to determine whether or not I understood the free software guidelines; in fact, all I needed to do was get my GPG key signed. It came, therefore, as a shock to see the interpretation of the guidelines become so narrow, that clauses previously dismissed as merely obnoxious are now being seen as non-free outright.

One example of this is the license with the Bitstream fonts, which does not allow you to sell the software on its own. Previously, the default reaction was to say "fine, we add scripts and a README to the package anyway", but a there is a group who would wish to see this sort of license rejected outright. (It is, however, still acceptable. For now.)

To sum up: Debian is stripping out binary firmware and documents which use the GNU FDL (and the OPL [OPL]). Non-free is staying, though, so you can still get the packages. vrms would complain, but vrms will be discarded as the real rms would consider many of these packages to be free. Debian will be harder to install, but since they're making great strides with installers, it'll probably be about the same. People will be divided over whether to think Debian a bunch of free-software purists, or free-software zealots. There will be great upheaval, resulting in things looking pretty much the same. There will be some mocking headlines ("Open source operating system not so open after all") but we'd have those anyway.

Because of the objections to the OPL, I'd like to state that I make no requirements against printed versions of this article. Anyone who makes modifications to it may identify themselves with a nickname, initial, number, or significant white space. To provide the location of the original document, you can tell people to go google.


[BIO] Jimmy is a single father of one, who enjoys long walks... Oh, right.

Jimmy has been using computers from the tender age of seven, when his father inherited an Amstrad PCW8256. After a few brief flirtations with an Atari ST and numerous versions of DOS and Windows, Jimmy was introduced to Linux in 1998 and hasn't looked back.

In his spare time, Jimmy likes to play guitar and read: not at the same time, but the picks make handy bookmarks.

Copyright © 2004, Jimmy O'Regan. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 102 of Linux Gazette, May 2004

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