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the FSF's definition of Free Software and its value for Debian

On Wed, Mar 05, 2003 at 12:21:41AM -0800, Thomas Bushnell, BSG wrote:
> Sure.  Why don't we adopt RMS's?  That would be my first vote.

I say this with great sadness, but there appears to be a difference
in RMS's and the Debian Project's interpretation of "freedom 3".

  The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to
  the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access
  to the source code is a precondition for this.

RMS does not perceive "invariant sections"[1], for instance, as a
meaningful restriction on freedom 3, whereas (at least) several Debian
Developers do.

Still, as long as we can accept the FSF's definition of Free Software
without swearing ideological fealty to its interpretations of the
concept, I think it will serve us very well -- as it has, implicitly,
for several years.

I think the FSF's definition of Free Software is a wonderful foundation,
but is not well suited to be much *more* than a foundation.

If I had my druthers, I'd arrange Debian's licensing paradigm somewhat
like the following -- and I'll admit up front that this is already
pretty much the way I think of it :) :

FSF's definition of Free Software      -->   Constitution
Debian Free Software Guidelines        -->   statutory law
debian-legal discussions               -->   case law

(The above is admittedly wholly grounded on the U.S. legal system for
its metaphorical value.)

This is part of the reason I think it wouldn't be a disaster if we
permitted the DFSG to be modified through a majority vote of the
developers -- that's because it's not the REAL foundation.  The real
foundation lies in our answer to the question, "What is freedom?"  Our
Social Contract pledges us to Free Software; the Debian Free Software
Guidelines are not a *definition* of Free Software, but rather a
template into which we place a license; we then see if the license fails
to mesh with the template in some way.

So debian-legal, in our role as judges and arbitrators, attempt to
interpret the DFSG and the licenses brought before us.  But we do this
in a context -- an *important* context, which is our understanding of
what freedom means.  This is another reason we should not be overly
literal in our interpretations of the DFSG, and blithely brand a license
as "DFSG-free" it seems to abide by letter of the DFSG in its narrowest
reading, but poses a threat to our users or Free Software that we did
not have the foresight to articulate in the DFSG.

No, I think we should regard the DFSG as akin to "statutory law"; it's
important, and violating it has consequences, but ultimately it is just
a tool in service of the foundational principles.  In the U.S., where
statutory law conflicts with the Constitution, the law loses -- and it is
judges who make this determination.  For the Debian Project, I think
that if the DFSG and the meaning of freedom conflict -- whether the DFSG
is too permissive in a given case or not permissive enough -- our
foundation of freedom must triumph, and the DFSG must be re-interpreted
or modified.  As the house experts on the issue, debian-legal is the
forum best suited to act as arbitrator of these matters, though there
are of course mechanisms for the rest of the Project to overrule us.
Given that anyone can participate in debian-legal, I don't think there
is as much risk of a culture clash between debian-legal and the
Developers in general as there sometimes is between the U.S. appellate
courts and the state and federal legislatures.

What do you folks think of my paradigm?  Useful or not?

[1] http://www.fsf.org/copyleft/fdl.html

G. Branden Robinson                |
Debian GNU/Linux                   |     Music is the brandy of the damned.
branden@debian.org                 |     -- George Bernard Shaw
http://people.debian.org/~branden/ |

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