Debian decides on GNU Free Documentation License


Author: Bruce Byfield

In a surprise decision, the developers of Debian have voted that materials released under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) are compatible with the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) — but only if they contain no invariant sections. The decision settles a longstanding dispute within the project about the GFDL. Although the decision continues to separate Debian from other free and open source software (FOSS) projects, most of which accepts the GFDL without reservations, the possibility remains that future revisions to the license could allow Debian accept it fully.

The decision is surprising because many prominent — or, at least vocal — Debian members have been saying for years that the GFDL did not fit with the DFSG, the set of principles used by Debian to determine what is shipped with official releases of the distribution.

In fact, the project has been preparing semi-officially to remove GFDL-licensed material. This material includes most of the manuals and on-line help for FSF, KDE, and GNOME projects. Although version 3.1 (“Sarge”), the latest Debian release, contains GFDL material, Debian Project Leader Branden Robinson stated last summer that it would be removed from the main section of Debian repositories in the next release. In most cases, that change would place GFDLed packages in the non-free section of repositories. However, at the discretion of package maintainers, it could mean removing documentation to keep packages in the main section.

The detailed results

The procedure for counting votes in Debian elections and general resolutions is specified in section A.6 of the Debian Constitution. All votes are tallied using a modified version of the Condorcet method. Voters rank choices by preference, but may leave choices blank, or rank choices equally.

Determining results usually takes three steps:

  1. Any choices that fail to reach quorum, except the default option, are dropped. By the Debian Constitution, quorum is equal to three times half the square root of the current number of developers.
  2. Choices that fail to defeat the default option are dropped. Choices that require a super-majority are dropped if they fail to achieve a three to one majority over the default option.
  3. Each remaining choice, including the default option, is compared against each of the others. The choice that defeats each of the others individually is known as the Schwartz set, and wins the vote. Further mechanisms exist to break any ties, but are generally not needed.

Although far more complicated than the so-called “first past the post” system used in North American and British elections, the Condorcet method has the advantage of producing a clear victor, and of making each vote count more. When general resolutions are voted on, the need to include a default option and for a super-majority for major policy changes may tend to discourage change.

In the recent vote on the GFDL, quorum was 46.7 votes. The original resolution, Amendment A and Amendment B all reached quorum. However, Amendment B was dropped because it failed to achieve a super-majority over the default option. In the pair by pair comparison of the original resolution. Amendment A, and the default option, Amendment A beat the original resolution by 211 to 145 votes, and the default option by 272 to 85.

Detailed information about the voting is available online.

Debian objections to the GFDL

According to a draft position statement prepared in 2003 by Manoj Srivastava, the Debian Project Secretary, and annotated by other Debian developers, the GFDL is incompatible with the DFSG for three main reasons:

  • In Section 2, the GFDL states that no GFDL documents can be used with measures designed “to obstruct or control” access to them. Although this wording is meant as a safeguard against digital rights management, many Debian developers interpret the DFSG as prohibiting any restrictions on how licensed material can be used. Under some interpretations, they claim, the wording could prohibit encryption or even file permissions.
  • The GFDL distinguishes between “opaque” copies (ones made in proprietary formats) and “transparent” copies (ones made in free formats). Under Section 3, all opaque copies of GFDL documents must be accompanied by a transparent version. The draft position statement suggests that transparent copies only need to be publicly available, just as source code released under the GNU General Public License need not be shipped with binaries.
  • The GFDL allows parts of a document that contain secondary material, such as the publishing history or acknowledgements, to be classed as “invariant” — that is, as unalterable. Many Debian developers see invariant sections as causing a series of problems. Most tellingly, they suggest that invariant sections could cause documents to swell with secondary material, or be used to undermine the purpose of a free license. However, the most important concern is that the entire concept of invariant material runs counter to the statement in the DFSG that “the license must allow modifications and derived works.”

The vote’s results imply that invariant sections have always been the major reason for Debian’ s rejection of the GFDL. Many developers have gone so far as to say that the concept of invariant sections makes the GFDL incompatible with the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Debian has been discussing its concerns with the Free Software Foundation (FSF) for almost three years. However, many members of the project had begun to lose faith in the process. Asked why the issue had finally come to a vote, Srivastava, says, “I guess we lost patience. While … reports we had were that progress was being made, and we should hold on, a lack of visible results for a process we initially thought would last weeks or months was very frustrating.” Srivastava adds that, despite the ongoing discussions many Debian members were becoming convinced that the Richard M. Stallman, who wrote the GFDL, had no commitment to reforming the license.

For most Debian developers, Srivastava says, “The issue really is how long must one keep compromising one’ s principles in order to bend over backwards to not annoy people at the FSF? While Richard [Stallman] is very likely standing on principle, so is the Debian project. It is just that we happen to differ over the freeness of the GFDL.”

The mechanics of the vote

Under the Debian Constitution, any developer can propose a general resolution for the project. To come to a vote, the resolution must be seconded by a valid number of developers. Rather than a percentage, the number of developers is defined as half of the square root of the current number of developers, or five, whichever is smaller. Once the resolution is announced, amendments can be added in the same way. If these amendments are accepted by the proposer and all seconders of the original resolution, then the resolution can be revised to include them. Otherwise, the amendment must be voted on separately.

In this case, Anthony Towns, a candidate for Debian Project Leader and the maintainer of a dozen packages, most of them part of the Debian core installation, made the original resolution to reject the GFDL completely.

Town’s original resolution was first amended by Adeodato Simó, one of the maintainers of the KDE packages. After soliciting opinions on the debian-private list, Simó proposed that GFDL documents with no invariant sections should be considered free. He notes that, while most Debian maintainers opposed invariant sections, other objections were held “with varying degrees of vehemence.” Under these circumstances, a total rejection seemed unwarranted. In addition, as a member of the greater FOSS community, Simó says, “the idea of rejecting works created by other community members (our peers, mind you), just to express how certain aspects of their license makes us unhappy, has always felt terribly wrong to me, and …. to some extent, a form of betrayal.” Simó’s proposal became Amendment A on the ballot.

Amendment B was proposed by Anton Zinoviev, who maintains dozens of packages, most having to do with keyboard mapping, fonts for the X Window System, and the partitioner in the Debian installer. While Zinoviev, like many Debian members, dislikes the existence of the non-free sections of the Debian repositories, he also worries that requirements for putting packages in the main section are growing more strict, and threaten to become a form of one-upmanship with the FSF.

Like Simó, Zinoviev expressed concerned about a growing estrangement between Debian and the FSF. However, feeling that stronger measures were needed, he proposed an amendment stating that all GFDLed material was free, and consulted Richard Stallman and other members of the FSF in its writing.

The official language for these amendments, along with their rationales, were accepted into the general resolution, giving voters three choices of how to regard the GFDL. As required by the Debian voting regulations (see below), Srivastava added the fourth choice: To have further discussion — in other words, the default option to leave the situation as it is.

Srivastava composed the ballot, explaining how to vote and reducing the various positions to short statements. He also decided that, since the only way that the GFDL could be accepted as free would be by altering the Debian Constitution or its Foundation Documents, the Debian Social Contract, and the DFSG, Amendment B would require a three to one majority over other choices.

Srivastava’s construction of the ballot has been criticized. Moreover, Zinoviev considers the process “flawed” because, he believes, Amendment B doe not require a change to the Foundation Documents, merely in the agreed-upon interpretation of them. However, Srivastava points out that he had requested suggestions by other developers as he assembled the ballot. At any rate, section A.2. of the Debian Constitution gives the Secretary the power to decide on the wording, and section A.3. the power to decide on procedure. Srivastava says that his main concerns were that the wording of the ballot is consistent with the original resolutions or amendments, “clear enough so that the people know what they are voting for,” and does not contradict the Foundation Documents.

Voting occurred between February 26 and March 11, 2006. Voters submitted email ballots by copying and pasting the relevant section of Srivastava’s email calling for votes and using an encryption key devised especially for the vote. Since the vote is not an election for a Debian office, ballots were not secret. The announcement that Amendment A had won was posted to the debian-vote list shortly after midnight on March 11. Detailed statistics, the voters’ list and the tally sheet used to determine the winner using Debian’ s complex system were also posted (see sidebar for a summary). To further ensure the legitimacy of the results, any Debian developer may also request an audit.

Consequences and reactions

The consequences of the vote have yet to emerge. Whether it will stop the migration of packages from the main to the non-free sections of Debian repositories depends on how many packages contain GFDL documents with invariant sections.

Nor is it clear how the vote might affect discussions with the FSF about the GFDL. In an early response to the results on the debian-legal list, Glenn Maynard suggested that “any pretense from the FSF of trying to fix these problems will be dropped entirely” because of the result.

However, others, such as Don Armstrong, seem to express, if not hope in the discussions, then at least a renewed willingness to see them through. From this position, perhaps, the vote has clarified Debian’s position, and shown a willingness to compromise that may strengthen its bargaining power.

Other posters wondered whether, given the result, the text of the GFDL itself should be considered an invariant section, or whether the result was a roundabout way of changing the Debian Foundation documents.

One thing that is already clear is that both those who wished to reject the GFDL and those who wished to accept it uncritically are equally dissatisfied by the result. On the one hand, Anthony DeRobertis, who gave the first response on debian-legal, expressed concern that the “consensus” of the list had not been accepted by Debian as a whole.

Others suggested that the issues had not been clearly expressed, with Joey Hess implying that the final result was so contrary to common sense that it amounts to an attempt to legislate the value of Pi. On the other hand, before the results were announced, Zinoviev suggested that, “the flaws in the current voting procedure make the moral validity of the outcome questionable,” and that the defeat of his amendment to accept the GFDL without reservation raises the possibility that Debian might attempt to influence how other FOSS projects use the GFDL. Debian, as Zinoviev points out, is a “relatively influential distribution,” and any such attempt might weaken the FSF’s position, and perhaps cause general resentment against Debian.

However, some Debian developers are already reluctantly viewing the results as an acceptable compromise. The results, says Simó “should be interpreted from outside as a sign that Debian is an heterogeneous project in which different voices try to get heard.” And Srivastava, an advocate of rejecting the GFDL completely, echoes all sides when he says, “I think the project has again followed a line of moderation; it has rejected invariant sections, which were deemed to be truly non-free, but has decided that works under the GFDL should not be excluded due to flaws in the license.” Although far from perfect, the result may ultimately be one with which everyone inside and outside Debian can live.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager’s Journal.


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