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A Simple Guide to the Problems of the GNU FDL, with Examples

photo Also called the GFDL by many (even though we don't say GGPL), the Free Software Foundation's preferred and often-compulsary licence for manuals is the so-called Free Documentation Licence. Sadly, it is only free as in cost and not free as in freedom. I regard it as unethical and harmful to free software. It has made me question the aims and even the integrity of the Free Software Foundation. In this page, I try to explain why, as well as follow the problem's development.

This section is part of something like a blog. To contact me or comment on this, see my email page.

  • Skip forwards to the FDL 1.2 general problem summary
  • Skip forwards to the FDL 1.2 DFSG points

The Meanings of Words

Lars Wirzenius posted about understanding meaning agreeing or accepting in "everyday language". I don't think it does. It only means that in some limited situations like "I don't want you to do that ever again: understand?" It's much more everyday for it to mean knowing about something or comprehending it. If you've seen bizarre accusations on debian mailing lists after someone claims to understand someone else's point of view, maybe this is why? I can understand it, but it's a PITA. Yes, it's a possible interpretation, but it's not often the most probable.

I guess that's part of what makes the FDL such an explosive topic. I advocate free software and to me, software is more than programs (which is arguably the original meaning, if you look into the history). However, for the Free Software Foundation leadership, Software means only programs. They don't seem to care about the freedom of non-program software. Only its effective freedom. It's not much use to debate the definition of software with them - that just leads to Death by Dictionary - but maybe we can convince FSF that the effective freedoms for all software, including manuals, are the same as the effective freedoms for programs. Time will tell. For now, I agree with the FSF about free software, as far as they go, but I am opposed to them about documentation licensing. If documentation is not software to them, they should leave it alone and not promote non-free- software licensing.

The FDL Position Statement Vote

I started composing my FDL PS ballot paper. Obviously, I prefer the "1.2 doesn't follow DFSG in any combo" option, but I was again arguing with myself about how to rank the others relative to Further Discussion (FD, which I regard as "try again to get agreement" instruction). One thing I can't remember is whether ordering multiple options beneath FD has any useful effect.

I browsed The Debian Voting System by Jochen Voss, but I seem to be too stupid to find the answer from it today. Looking at past tally sheets, it seems many people do order them, so probably I will too.

Rank Further Discussion High

Yet again, someone posted a misunderstanding of Further Discussion to encourage more 2 and 3 preference votes for bad decisions. This time it's Raphael Hertzog. It could be insincerity, cluelessness, dislike of voting or something else motivating him and I don't mean to suggest any reason, but please don't rank FD below options that you dislike. Any compromise found from that voting will not last long. Voting closes this weekend: if you have ranked FD below options you dislike, revote now if you want to find a real compromise.

As you can find if you explore Jochen Voss's paper linked above on this page, the best way to get a good compromise decision is if there is a good spread of options. I don't think the three presented are a very high-granularity(?) range, so FD is the best outcome if we're really divided: try to get agreement again. If it goes to FD, I intend to propose a wide range of options after the DPL campaigns end (multiple votes being discussed at once are too much of a distraction, in my opinion).

What, no explanation?

So, the position statement claims FDL-without- unmodifiables works can go into main. Sadly, the approved text says nothing about the anti- DRM or the source code problems. As I posted: "It just pulls a conclusion out of the project's backside without rationale. This leaves a huge gaping hole in the understanding of the FDL. Dumb."

Others are trying to retcon past analyses to try to make the FDL PS make sense. I'd prefer to leave the ambiguity because that's what the project voted for, but the question is: can anyone explain how the no-security and format restrictions (like section 2 "technical measures" and section 3 "include a machine-readable Transparent copy along with each Opaque copy, or [a URL valid for a year]") follow the guidelines and are practically possible with the current archive? [debian-legal subthread on DRM]

Summary of the FDL problems

Clear DFSG problems with the FDL 1.2:

DFSG 1: it forbids many reasonable derived works

s1 para3/4 and s4 combine to make it impossible to remove off-topic parts of the work (invariant sections) even if it is necessary for the particular use

DFSG 2/3/4: over-protects the integrity of the author's source by restricting the source code of derived works

s2 refuses any security measures being applied to any reading of the work, s3 restricts the format of any distribution, s4 restricts the format of any modification

DFSG 6: discriminates against fields of endeavour

s1 para3/4 when combined with any invariant section must discriminate against one or more of history, law, commerce, philosophy, ethics or politics. The work can no longer be used for whichever purposes are covered by the invariant section; if it were, the invariant section would no longer be secondary, as its contents "could fall directly within that overall subject" and so the FDL could not be satisfied. Discrimination against the field of commerce has always been a fairly uncontroversial way to fail DFSG 6, as far as I know, and the FDL does that.

Nelson's questions

Nelson asks some FDL questions. In order:

I just don't understand about the whole GFDL debacle is why it's so urgently important to purge all GFDL documents

It's not. It's taken ages to identify them, after all the waiting on the still-unfulfilled hope that the problems would be fixed by FSF.

we've been distributing non-modifiable documents since Debian's inception

We've been distributing other bugs too. Still good to fix them when spotted.

Sure, they're icky, worded poorly, and no one particularly likes them. But since when is that grounds for removal from Debian?

Since the decision was delegated to ftpmasters and the release team to call. From memory, the transparent clause requires source code in "compiled" packages and the DRM clause is so poorly worded as to affect some mirrors, arguably.

So, what does this accomplish?

It fixes a whole class of bugs. Your reasons about alienation of users, heavy burden on developers and reliance on non-free sound awfully similar to the old "netscape in main" reasons to me.

The only positive benefit I can see is that some people get some warm fuzzies for sticking it to the FSF and interpreting our foundation documents as strictly as possible. Is that really worth it?

It's painful to remove the FDL'd works, but the Free Software Foundation has released a licence that isn't a free software licence because it lets them force distributors to distribute their manifesto too. If we let every document contain a required manifesto as well as the licence required by copyright law (and some of those are wordy enough), that's a lot of dead weight and it can only ever increase.

I think the only difference caused by this licence being created by the FSF is that a lot of us held back from acting more swiftly: we expected the Free Software Foundation to support free software! Why isn't the FSF being called to account for publishing a non-free-software licence? Doesn't that exceed their powers or obstruct their mission? What are the FSF trustees doing? Who are they anyway? Does FSF check itself against the BBB Standards for Charity Accountability at all? That seems to be a murky direction if you start off on it :-/

Instead of crippling Debian, why not work gradually to improve the state of documentation?

Many have. If it's going too slowly for you, please help out.

We could try to educate a wider audience on the problems of the GFDL - you do realize that most of the outside free software community views us as wacky license nazis, right?

That question supposes a falsehood. When are you going to stop beating little children?

As to educating a wider audience: that's why you should vote YES to releasing a position statement on the FDL issue. Voting yes or further discussion won't overrule the RMs either way. Voting yes will help put the explanation out to a wider audience.

Producing a totally free operating system should be a goal, not an absolute requirement. [...]

I await the Social Contract "100% free" to "hoping for 100% free, sometime, maybe" amendment proposal. Or we could help fix these non-technical bugs, however awkward and icky they are. I know which I'll be doing.

More general problems with the FDL:

In short, FDL 1.2 is built on two underlying bugs:

  1. denying freedom to modify parts of the work, as described by RMS
  2. defining effective freedoms by distinguishing bitstreams, contradicting "We can't depend for the long run on distinguishing one bitstream from another in order to figure out which rules apply." -- Eben Moglen, in Free Software and the Death of Copyright.

Both of those are directly against our freedom to adapt the manuals to meet our needs.

Invariant sections are nothing more than a type of adverts which stick to the manual. Sometimes, I like the adverts (like the GNU Manifesto) and sometimes I don't, but that's not important. The sticky adverts cause obvious problems:

An adware licence

It is particularly surprising that FSF should build a better Obnoxious Advertising Clause, given the past criticism of BSDers for using them.

Also, these adverts have to be in the licensed work itself, so the FDL is an adware licence and the ads are an obnoxious cost to all distributors, not just ones who advertise.

Sending mixed messages from FSF

Several of the GNU manuals have "Commercial Support" as an invariant section and the original motivation was to make a licence "to enlist commercial publishers in funding free documentation without surrendering any vital liberty." (Richard Stallman) Why the weasel words "vital liberty"? Also seen: "effective freedoms".

If you agree with me that documentation can be software, you should oppose FSF promoting this non-free software licence.

If you agree with FSF that only programs are software, you should oppose FSF promoting this non-software licence.

I also think it's tactically inept that FSF rewards legacy publisher corporations (some of whom were among the creators and early supporters of Open Source, and sought to marginalise RMS) with a licence that preserves their business model.

Requiring unethical behaviour

It's impractical to make a reference card from an FDL manual. When asked whether one can remove the invariant sections in such a situation, it's usually suggested to print them as another volume. Invariant sections can be large, especially compared to a reference card.

Any licence which requires paper waste on such a relatively large scale is unethical and environmentally unfriendly.

May contain "poison pills"

As long as you can connect it with one of the six subjects allowed to make something invariant, you can make any topic off-limits for your text.

For GNU statistical software for example, this seems very easy to do. Imagine starting the appendix "I first started to use this software after someone used it to illustrate the spurious climate change relationship, which is wrong because..." You could probably do something similar for almost any topic. (Given the waste of paper caused by these adverts, it could be a climate- change double-whammy.)

Distribution may become unfixably illegal

Even if the advert is false or otherwise illegal (even if it was not so at the time/place of writing), recipients are forbidden from correcting it or removing it. This limits the freedoms to use the manual, adapt the manual to our needs and share it with our friends.

We are forbidden from fixing some bugs ourselves: we have to beg the relevant licensor, just like other proprietary software!

FDL is a friend to hate speech

Speaking of illegality, it seems quite fine for any political view to be included in an invariant section. How about the extreme right? Or extremely violent? If you want to use any useful contributions to the work by such obnoxious people, the licence can require you to keep the adverts for their views in it.

It seems you may not even retitle the section to make it clear that it is not your view.

Too damn complicated, even for FSF supporters

The invariant sections language is complex and poorly understood, which leads to licensors misusing it.

For example, I have seen a GNU manual that stated the entire work was an invariant section, and a free software magazine which specified the table of contents as invariant. I don't believe that either of those were deliberate attempts to be evil. (gdb's manual has been fixed - check old versions if you want to verify my claim.)

It's an advert trap

The complexity also means some FDL-users do not realise that later contributors can attach large adverts to their work, until they get a rude surprise. That's especially true if they know that such adverts are generally impossible for free software: FDL is from FSF and strongly recommended, so why would they expect a lesser amount of freedom?


FDL: draft to be published by 1 July

 Seen on Newsforge after a tip-off by Rob Myers on fc-uk-discuss: "Moglen says that the FSF plans to release first drafts of new versions of the Lesser General Public License (LGPL) and the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) by July 1."

FDL draft published on 26 September

Sadly, it uses the broken GPLv3 comment system. Please let me know if you have problems with it, or can help to make it work in a Firefox-name-changed browser.
  • Go up to the FDL 1.2 general problem summary
  • Go up to the FDL 1.2 DFSG points
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The Wikipedia Example

When discussing the FDL, Wikipedia is often held up as a shining example of how the FDL encourages collaboration and creativity. This is bunk because:

  1. A wiki is not the sort of thing the FDL is recommended for;
  2. All topics are primary to an encyclopedia, so no work from an FDL'd document with an invariant section can be added to wikipedia, as the invariant could no longer be secondary;
  3. Wikipedia has dodgy relicensing in its past (see Barak Pearlmutter explanation).

Furthermore, Wikipedia has severe problems with accuracy and its extreme right-wing viewpoint (so-called Neutral Point of View) which is enforced by an army of bots that revert almost all edits. Not directly an FDL problem, but another reason not to use wikipedia as an example.

See Chuck O for one example of a leftish view getting corrupted by Wikipedia. Apparently a long-standing and authoritative FAQ isn't an allowable source. He's now started building a whole Wikipedia Hall of Shame, which shouldn't take long.

Another example of similar problems with Wikipedia's randomly-biased editing was given in Toto, I Don't Think We're in Wikipedia Anymore [Adam Rosi- Kessel's Fair and Balanced Weblog]. I didn't try editing Wikipedia back in 2001, so I can't comment on whether this is a recent problem, as suggested, but it is a problem.

Aside: an anonymous commenter sent in the following links about Wikipedia, which I've hesitated to publish. It seems that something like Google's China bug may also afflict Wikipedia. I think this is far more worrying - Wikipedia doesn't seem to have a commercial reason for allowing Chinese control.

"1. November 30th, 2006, CBS published an online article named: Is Wikipedia China Really Wikipedia?

2. International Herald Tribune - Asian-Pacific recently wrote Chinese- language Wikipedia presents different view of history

"But on sensitive questions of China's modern history or on hot-button issues, the Chinese version diverges so dramatically from its English counterpart that it sometimes reads as if it were approved by the censors themselves."

3. On December 1, 2006, The New York Times published another report by Howard W. French, titled as "Wikipedia lays bare two versions of China's past."

"Some say the object should be to spread reliable information as widely as possible, and that, in any case, self-censorship is pointless because the government still frequently blocks access to Wikipedia for most Chinese Internet users. 'There is a lot of confusion about whether they should obey the neutral point of view or offer some compromises to the government,' said Isaac Mao, a well-known Chinese blogger and user of the encyclopedia. 'To the local Wikipedians, the first objective is to make it well known among Chinese, to get people to understand the principles of Wikipedia step by step, and not to get the thing blocked by the government."

And "the articles are already pre-censored by party-leaning moderators and users" on the Chinese wikipedia. [user comment] "

Update: it seems that comment also appeared at Newsome.Org flyte blog and c|net. There are more posts apparently by the same author at ZDnet

  • Go up to the start of the Wikipedia Example
  • Go up to the FDL 1.2 general problem summary
  • Go up to the FDL 1.2 DFSG points
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Comment form for non-frame browsers.

Comments are moderated (damn spammers) but almost anything sensible gets approved (albeit eventually). If you give a web address, I'll link it. I won't publish your email address unless you ask me to, but I'll email you a link when the comment is posted, or the reason why it's not posted.

Background links

Links explaining why the FDL isn't a free software licence:

This is copyright 2006 MJ Ray. See fuller notice on front page.