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Re: Non-DD's in debian-legal

Ian Jackson <ian@davenant.greenend.org.uk> writes:
> Jeremy Hankins writes ("Non-DD's in debian-legal"):

>> I'm not sure I understand this part, though.  Do you think that folks
>> like myself, who are not DD's, should not participate in the discussions
>> on d-l?
> Actually, I think they should not participate, in general.

I've given this a fair amount of thought.  You make some good points,
and some of them strike quite close to home for myself, so I clearly
have to give them some weight.  But I don't think you've got the whole
picture here.

> The arguments that are had on debian-legal about what is an acceptable
> licence, and what principles these decisions should be based on, are
> often very political.  Political decisions in Debian should be taken
> by DD's.

This is the point that bothers me the most.  It's certainly true that
licensing decisions are in part political.  But it's also the case that
they are in part technical.  Not in the sense of having to do with
technology and computers, but in the sense of hinging upon particular
details and specialized knowledge.  It is quite possible to get a
licensing issue empirically wrong, after all.

This came up with the recent GR on the GFDL.  There was a bit of
discussion on d-l about how to interpret it: was it amending the DFSG,
or specifying an interpretation for the GFDL?  If it was the first,
exactly what was the amendment, and why didn't it say it was amending
anything?  If it was the latter wasn't it a bit like legislating pi or
outlawing the tides: an attempt to fix by legislative fiat something
which we have no control over in the first place.  In the end I think
this was (sort of) resolved by interpreting the GFDL GR as specifying an
interpretation, but only for the purposes of the DFSG.  (Of course, as a
political issue being discussed on d-l, this proves your point.)

I'm not trying to re-raise the whole GFDL debate.  But I do think it was
an example of where Debian could go wrong by treating licensing issues
as political issues.  In the end, there's a real world out there with
real judges and real courts, and we can't act as if they don't exist.

It's certainly true that licensing issues are intensely political.  And
it's probably impossible to disentangle the politics from the technical
(factual) issues.  And Debian, as an organization, has a right to say
that internal politics are internal, and not something for outsiders
like myself to be party to.  If that's the case, though, political lists
should really be taken private, or posting limited to members, or

Personally, I think that one of Debian's strengths is its openness, and
willingness to have discussions in front of and with outsiders.  Though
naturally, I say that as an outsider.

> Arguments about licences are phrased as if the questions are all
> clear-cut and right-or-wrong, but actually usually they're matters of
> interpretation where weight of numbers on one side or another ends up
> often carrying the day.  (`Am I really the only person who thinks this
> is completely mad?' `No, but all the rest of them are too busy writing
> software.')

If they're busy writing software they're probably not up to speed on the
technical/factual issues.  So it's a fair question to ask whether their
opinion is relevant.  In the end that's a variation of "the lurkers
support me."

This is one of the most common accusations leveled against d-l: that the
membership of d-l is skewed and not representative of Debian as a whole.
If that's true there's not much d-l can do about it, of course, and the
whole process of license evaluation should perhaps be rethought.  The
simplest solution, though, is for those who think d-l skewed to start

> The situation with non-DD's pontificating about what is and is not an
> acceptable Free licence is mitigated somewhat by the fact that
> debian-legal is only a talking shop and doesn't actually decide, but
> as we've just seen, people (both people from debian-legal and
> elsewhere) do seem to think that debian-legal is or ought to be where
> these decisions are taken.

I think what's concerning to most (it concerns me) is that people seem
to be _avoiding_ d-l, presumably because they see it as invalid or
corrupted by weirdos.  That's indicative of a serious problem, because
it means licensing issues aren't being discussed _at all_.  As saddened
as I would be if d-l went private, if doing so is the only way to solve
that problem it's probably a good idea.

> Discussions about licensing are different from most other kinds of
> activity in Debian precisely because they're political and have a very
> low barrier to entry.  Picking up the slack in licence approval (if
> indeed there is any slack) is not at all like picking up the slack in
> maintenance of a particular package.  To maintain a package you need a
> clear technical head, a certain minimum time commitment, and the
> results (good or bad) are clearly visible.  Whereas anyone can blow
> off hot air on a mailing list.

You're partly correct, I think.  Certainly in my own case, I've
considered at various times becoming a DD, but decided I simply don't
have the time to commit to the process.  And it's true that on d-l I can
go on a six-month hiatus without worrying about package bugs going
unfixed & the like.

On the other hand, if you're going to pick apart a license, you do need
to spend some time getting up to speed.  You do need to know something
of what you're talking about, and a minimum time commitment.  How that
compares to your average package, I can't say.

> But dismantling the or undermining the tie between political
> decisionmaking in Debian to formal membership is not the answer.

Political decision making is, of course, attached to membership in the
form of voting rights.  The question of whether political discussion
should be as well is a question of a trade-off with openness.

Jeremy Hankins <nowan@nowan.org>
PGP fingerprint: 748F 4D16 538E 75D6 8333  9E10 D212 B5ED 37D0 0A03

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