FreeSoftwareAnalysis/FSF

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FSF Response

As part of Fedora's Free software analysis, RahulSundaram sent a list of questions to FSF and got the following response.


From: Richard Stallman <rms@gnu.org>
Reply-To: rms@gnu.org
To: tcallawa@redhat.com
Cc: brett@gnu.org, rms@gnu.org, novalis@gnu.org
Subject: License questions
Date: Sun, 29 Oct 2006 13:45:49 -0500

> > * Sourceless firmware is currently allowed in Fedora as long as it is
> > redistributable. Refer to
> > http://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Packaging/Guidelines#BinaryFirmware for
> > more information on this. Is this considered to be allowed by FSF?

The question is whether it qualifies as free software.  Firmware is
software, and non-free firmware is non-free software.  (Which
processor the software runs on is just a detail.)

Since these programs are binary-only, they are clearly not free
software.  (They are also not open-source.)  Their inclusion in Linux
itself is a violation of the GPL, but the Linux developers don't seem
inclined to enforce the GPL against that violation.

At present, essentially all GNU/Linux distros include the non-free
firmware, because it was too hard to remove.  So we decided to
overlook the issue for the time being, and not reject distros on this
account.  This applies to Fedora the same as to other distros.

However, progress is being made on removing non-free firmware from
Linux.  As this becomes feasible, and after some more time goes by, we
will no longer want to make an exception for this category of non-free
software.

> > * What is FSF's position on distributions that ship patented software
> > like mp3 codecs. It seems Blag does for example does this and is listed
> > as a Free software distribution. Also note that shipping mp3 codecs
> > licensed under GPL is a licensing violation since there is no compatible
> > patent grant on it as implicitly specified in the license.

The term "patented software" is confusing since it presumes a patent
that is specifically about the particular program in question.  There
are no such patents; that is not how software patents work.  The issue
is about programs that appear to implement ideas that are covered by
patents.

That category includes nearly all large programs -- that is what makes
software patents such a harmful system.  To pick one example, the
kernel Linux, Dan Ravicher found that it implemented 283 US patents.

We think there is nothing wrong with distributing free software that
implements patented ideas, as long as the patent holders don't stop
you.

> > * What is FSF's take on including sourceless fonts or images or other
> > form of data?

Fonts are software, so they have to be free.  However, the question of
the source code for a font can be subtle.  If the font is a bitmap,
the bitmap itself probably qualifies as source code, since that is the
preferred format for editing the font.  (The like is true for bitmap
images and sound files.)

Images and sounds need to be free if they are essential parts of the
software.  But if they are just decoration, and easily replaced, then
they do not have to be free.

Thus, images containing logos are acceptable, as long as it is easy to
remove them without damaging the software itself.

* While Fedora formal documentation and websites do no mention non-free
software usually there are specific exceptions to this such as
interoperability between Free and non-free JVM's.  Would this prevent a
distribution from being listed as Free?

It depends on whether the program is recommended in a way that
would make it effectively part of what users get when they get
the distro.

In general, something that helps people who already use non-free
software to use the free software better with it is ok; something that
encourages users of the free software to install non-free software is
harmful.

The former case arises often for applications, but it is unlikely for
a GNU/Linux distro, since it isn't installed on top of other software.
The only such case I can think of would be in a dual-boot system,
where you could want to explain how to refer to Windows file systems,
etc.  That would be helping people install Fedora on a machine which
already has Windows, which is good.

The other, bad case would be telling people how to install a non-free
program on Fedora, or mentioning conveniences they might gain by doing
so.

For a borderline case, a clear and serious exhortation not to use the
non-free program would shift it clearly into the former case.

> > * Would it be possible for the FSF to go through our packaging
> > guidelines at http://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Packaging/Guidelines and the
> > packages included in Fedora Core and Fedora Extras aside from our own
> > licensing audit and point out clear or potential issues with it?

We can certainly go through the guidelines.  We have not yet done so,
but we know of one problem in the current policy: it says that
packages can be included which qualify as open source but not as free
software.  In other words, not all packages need to meet the
definition of free software.

Given this policy, it would not be useful to check whether Fedora is
entirely free at one given time, because even if it is, it might not
be entirely free a month later.

Thus, before we check the present contents of a distro, we want to see
that it has a policy of removing anything non-free that may later be
discovered in it, or find its way in.

If the policy is in a wiki, that means it could be changed at any time
in any way.  We can't rely on whatever it says today.  We would want
to check the policies that you have actually adopted.

As for checking the actual packages, we have staff that do this, but
it would be a big job.  So we would have to work out payment for it.

> > * Is there a complete list of items that FSF evaluates a distribution
> > against before considering it a Free software distribution?

No, but it is a good idea, so we will use these answers as the start
of such a list.

If you have suggestions, we'd like to hear them.

> > There is concern in Fedora that a move towards listing Fedora as a Free
> > software distribution would lend the project into FSF's other political
> > issues such as GNU/Linux naming. While Fedora as a project shares some
> > of the common goals, we are unlikely to have exactly the same position
> > in several other issues with FSF. As someone within the Fedora Board
> > initiating this effort, I would like to hear your thoughts on this.
> > What advantages/disadvantages do you personally see?

Calling the system "GNU/Linux" is not a matter of political views, it
is a matter of fairness to the developers of GNU.  To give the credit
for our work to someone who came along later is not nice.

Treating us fairly is one thing, and respecting the users' freedom is
another.  If a package is free, we will say so, even if the developers
deny us credit for our work.  However, we will probably decline to
strongly endorse and promote that package as we would if they treated
us fairly.

There is a true political issue in the choice between the terms "free
software" and "open source", and the respective ideas associated with
each.  Developers have a right to their political views, and we won't
judge the ethics of a distro by the political opinions that come with
it.  However, when we decide how much to promote a distro, we will
certainly do this more if it supports our cause.


Patents and GPL


On Tue, Jul 03, 2007 at 05:41:44PM +0530, Rahul Sundaram wrote:
> > Does FSF believe that it is a violation of GPL license, specifically
> > section 7 if Free software licensed under the GPL license implements
> > features that are affected by patents if any distribution or end users
> > distribute such software in regions that don't enforce patents on
> > software? An obvious example would be a distribution outside of US
> > including a MP3 decoder.

Rahul,

It's very hard to violate the GPL just because you know about a patent.
For example, assuming that MP3 really is patent-encumbered in the United
States, you wouldn't violate the GPL if you merely created and distributed
an MP3 encoder, even inside the United States.

Patent-related GPL violations typically only arise when you either hold the
patent, or have a license to the patent.  If you hold a patent and
distribute GPLed software that exercises that patent, you can't later sue
recipients who further distribute or modify the work for patent
infringement; that would violate section 6 of GPLv2, which says "You may
not impose any further restrictions on the recipients' exercise of the
rights granted herein."

If you have a patent license that purports to let you distribute GPLed
software, but imposes restrictions that are fundamentally incompatible with
the GPL, then that would be a violation of section 7 of GPLv2.  For
instance, suppose the patent license gave you permission to distribute
software that exercised the patent's claims, but also said that nobody who
received the software must be allowed to modify it.  This would conflict
with the GPL's requirements to give all your recipients the same rights
that you have.  Thus, section 7 says, you must not distribute the software
at all.

I hope this answers your question, and helps clarify where the lines are.
If you have further questions, feel free to ask.

Best regards,

-- Brett Smith Licensing Compliance Engineer, Free Software Foundation


Export Control Regulations And GPL


On Sat, Aug 11, 2007 at 01:14:53AM +0530, Rahul Sundaram wrote:

> > Fedora as a distribution is affected by export control regulations as
> > any software subjected to US laws from the legal perspective.
> >
> > http://fedoraproject.org/wiki/Distribution/Download/ExportRegulations
> >
> > Clause 8 in GPL mentions that such regulations are compatible with the
> > license but can you confirm FSF's viewpoints on this?

Section 8 of GPLv2 doesn't make the sort of sweeping policy statement
you're suggesting here.  You'll note that we took this clause out of GPLv3
-- but you're not suddenly going to get into export restriction trouble
because of it.

The question to ask is: what requirement of the GPL does the law prevent
you from fulfilling?  When it comes to export restrictions, the answer is
none.  If you comply with local export restrictions, you will not run afoul
of any requirements in the GPL.  Therefore, there's no conflict.

Export restrictions limit who you can give the software to.  The GPL has no
problem with you being picky about who you give the software to: if you
want, you can decide that you'll only distribute to paying customers, or
people with blue hair.  So the fact that you also decide not to distribute
to Iranians and Syrians is no problem as far as the license is concerned.

Best regards,

-- Brett Smith Licensing Compliance Engineer, Free Software Foundation

On the last point (export control), I believe the FSF is talking about the existence of local export control regulations that the user must comply with in order not to run afoul of local law, as opposed to the existence of contractual/licensing provisions that make compliance with export control laws (including ones that you might not otherwise be subject to) a condition of the copyright license grant. - Richard Fontana