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Re: drop or keep non-free - from users viewpoint

Rob Browning wrote:

> Manoj Srivastava <srivasta@debian.org> writes:
>>  But then everyone else who is saving their time by using Sven's
>>  driver would have to duplicate it, and that may be a significant
>>  amount of time lost that culd have gone towards something more
>>  useful (anyone who can generate a new driver has a modicum of
>>  technical competence). Even worse, someone transitioning to Debian,
>>  helped by that driver, shall no longer have access, and not yet
>>  being able to compile their own drivers, leave -- and we have lost
>>  a future contributor.
> I've also wondered lately about about cases where the software is
> legally required[1] to be nonfree.
A different sort of example for this are things covered by enforced patents
where the patent-holder has given out a *limited* blanket license to
implement the patent, but not a DFSG-free license to do so -- the copyright
holders might be distributing on entirely free terms.  :-P

>  What got me to thinking about that
> was the madwifi drivers for the Atheros a/b/g chipset.
> Presuming I understand the issue correctly, there is a small bit of
> code that is not, and can not legally be made publically available, at
> least not in the US.  That's because the Atheros chip is a flexible
> piece of hardware, capable of doing all kinds of things in the radio
> spectrum that the FCC (at least in the US) forbids.
It's forbidden to *do* all those things in the radio spectrum, but it's most
certainly not illegal to sell things which *can* do them (otherwise Radio
Shack would be out of business) -- substantial noninfringing uses, or some
such doctrine.

>  So although I
> believe the developers of the madwifi drivers actually have the source
> to the bit of code that configures the chip to operate within the
> regulations, they can only release the resulting object file.  The
> rest of the driver code (nearly all of it) is completely free.
I'm quite sure there's nothing actually illegal about distributing the
configuration code; since the configuration code itself is making the chip
behave legally (I assume ;-) ), it can't really be considered to be
contributing to any sort of infringement.  Even if it was deemed to be
against some law, it would almost certainly be constitutionally protected,
given that releasing it has genuine benefits regarding the improvement of
the code.

> I suppose one could claim that Atheros just shouldn't have created
> such a flexible chip, and should have hard-coded the the chip for the
> current (each?) regulatory domain.  I suppose in that case, you would
> be making a strong distinction based on the actual storage (or perhaps
> execution) medium -- of the code EEPROM (or ROM) vs RAM.
> [1] Of course IANAL, and I may well be misunderstanding the state of
> affairs -- i.e. is distribution in this case actually illegal in the
> US, or is Atheros just covering themselves?
They're covering themselves.  But I understand their desire to, because
lately there's been quite a tendency in this country for people to be sued
or prosecuted for doing things which aren't actually illegal, and it can be
a massive pain; nobody ever gets damages for the bogus suits or
prosecutions, certainly not enough to cover the time and effort involved. 
Chilling effects, is what that is.

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