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Re: Request for GR: clarifying the license text licensing / freeness issue

On Tue, 2007-04-17 at 15:59 -0400, Nathanael Nerode wrote:
> Alternate suggested GR text:
> ---------------------------
> The Debian Project notes that many license texts are copyrighted works, licensed 
> only under meta-licenses which prohibit the creation of derivative license texts.
> We consider this to be undesirable.  License texts are functional works; reusing 
> legal text from an earlier license makes a new license much easier to read and 
> interpret, while brand new legal text is likely to have unexpected results.
> This is true even of preambles, which can have an effect on the interpretation of
> the license.  We encourage all authors of license texts to allow the creation of
> derivative license texts.

As you can see in many real examples, such as the GPLv3 process, making
changes to an existing license can have very unexpected results that are
hard to understand. Having more free software licenses will increase the
difficulty of reusing code across projects, distributing software
together in aggregates (or "distributions", as in our case) and for
developers and users to understand the combined effect of the license
requirements. So nothing is gained in terms of ease of use or clarity by
encouraging the creation of more licenses. Having a multitude of
different licenses will create isolated "islands" in the free software
community, and Debian should instead encourage the use of existing
licenses which allow the community to share code, which are well
understood and which perhaps have even been proven to work in court or
in out-of-court settlements.

I think there is no need for the requested GR. A software license
doesn't belong to same domain as the software itself. It hooks into
copyright law (and sometimes, patent law) to define the conditions under
which the software itself can be used, distributed, modified and so on.
The promise of freedom that Debian makes concerns the software
components that comprise the Debian system. These components are
individually licensed, but the license is the "proof of freedom", not
part of the software's function. The files that contain the text of the
license are included because it needs to be in writing, and that is the
standard practise when distributing software.

If you want to make an argument from the standpoint of the DFSG, then
please look at §4, which talks about modification restrictions and patch
files. It is not uncommon for a free software author to give additional
permissions to a license, or to make clarifying statements regarding its
interpretation, in addition to the unmodified main license. Examples
include Linux and GPL'ed programs that link with OpenSSL, and all
software which offer a choice between multiple licenses. Such additional
restrictions could be considered "patches" in the domain of software
licenses. (Their real effect is of course as vague as the practise of
law itself, because they are given in a natural language and are subject
to interpretation by a court of law, just like the main license.)
Because copyright law ensures that the copyright holder can do this
(fulfills the requirement of explicicy), because licenses cannot prevent
it (copyright law takes precedence), and because the DFSG considers
source + patch to be acceptable, it seems that the issue is already
taken care of.

Fabian Fagerholm <fabbe@paniq.net>

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