[iDC] Free Manuals for Free Software (and the ethics of collaborative critique)

Gabriella Coleman biella at nyu.edu
Thu Oct 9 14:28:32 UTC 2008


My comments below only pertain to the indigenous (i.e. developer) 
critiques of the FDL which I think are worth mentioning in just few 
paragraphs for reasons I details below. In short, it can bolster your 
argument and I think it is the ethically right thing to do (details below).

I have some other comments about the rest of your essay, which is so 
spot on and I just want to point to one resource that can help with the 
question of documentation (insight's drawn from Richard Sennet's recent 
book, the Craftsman) but that email is for later.

 > I was trying to avoid that argument a little because Debian seemed to
 > endorse the FDL as long as 'invariant sections' were not present in the
 > text. My point is that the FDL is more fundamentally crippled because of
 > its embedded rationale - to support a small business publishing model.
 > It seemed to me that Debian critiqued the formal legal freedoms and gave
 > the license a 'pass' under certain circumstances without addressing the
 > tangled rationale that makes the license a real mess.

If one reads and follows the debates  (though it was a multi-month, 
nearly year long debate so it requires some time), they do address the 
"tangled" rationale (they love to debate the law, after all and are 
logic fetishist too).

What is most clear is that most vehemently opposed the FDL (and many 
noted the irony that Stallman supported a non-free license).  Here is 
just one place where they attacked the rationale using a lot of their 
own “rationales”


which concludes:

“It is not possible to borrow text from a GFDL'd manual and
   incorporate it in any free software program whatsoever.
   This is not a mere license incompatibility.  It's not just
   that the GFDL is incompatible with this or that free
   software license: it's that it is fundamentally incompatible
   with any free software license whatsoever.
   So if you write a new program, and you have no commitments
   at all about what license you want to use, saving only that
   it be a free license, you cannot include GFDL'd text.
The GNU FDL, as it stands today, does not meet the Debian
   Free Software Guidelines.  There are significant problems
   with the license, as detailed above; and, as such, we
   cannot accept works  licensed unde the GNU FDL into our

I also think it is incorrect to say they endorse the FDL just because 
they allow its use under certain conditions. If one looks at what the 
majority of Developers do with their own documentation, they basically 
steer entirely clear of the FDL and this sends a very strong message 
that the FDL is broken/sucks/unworthy/not right etc.

The majority of developers use the GPL for their documentation because 
they also feel like documentation must be open to modification. Or they 
don't even use a separate license, because they see documentation and 
software as fundamentally connected and thus feel it should enjoy all 
the freedoms that software has.

They were just stuck and struck with the problem that they had GNU/FSF 
documentation in the distribution and basically by passing the GR, which 
made the FDL permissible only under certain conditions, they disabled 
the most onerous restriction in the FDL that made it unfree according to 
th DFSG (and as a result they also had to migrate a number of GNU/FSF 
documentation to non-free).

I think this resolution sends a pretty strong message, which says the 
FDL is broken, we don't support it, and if you must use it, you can use 
it only under these conditions (and alas, no one uses it! :-). And 
again, the most important fact may not be the GR but the fact that 
developers themselves don't use the FDL. They just had to do something 
about it since they do have GNU/FSF documentation in the distro and had 
to make a decision about how to treat it.

Anyone who has gotten this far (probably just Adam) is thinking: "wow, 
she is really nitpicky and knows just a little bit too much about Debian 
politics!" In other words, why belabor this point?

I think it is important for two reasons, one that has to do with your 
own argument and the other about the ethics of collaboration not in 
realm of technology but in the realm of political critique.

I think mentioning Debian's native critique can bolster your own 
arguments. If there is a small army of developers who question the FDL, 
well there must be something really off with the license, no? The 
difference here is between one person making a statement vs. a group of 
people making a statement. There is a power that comes from numbers. 
What people do, in other words, can be marshalled as a great source of 

Finally, if we are inspired by  F/OSS because developers collaborate and 
work together to find technical solutions, I think it is ethically 
important to recognize they also collaborate in the realm of ethics and 
law as well and we can chose to be part of the conversation or fork ours 
and make no connection to existing ones.

Without even mentioning their vigorous debate and the heart of their 
critique and their solution, you risk portraying your critique of the 
FDL as something new. But in fact some version of  of it has existed 
within the very developer community and for years.

In the spirit of collaboration, I would stake your own claim about the 
FDL, but also note how you are contributing to and extending an existing 
conversation. Too often developers are portrayed as closed minded 
tech-wonks who care for nothing but technology. This is patently wrong. 
They are thinking through these legal/ethical issues and it analytically 
and politically pays to pay attention to what they are saying even if it 
has its limits.

That being said, this does not mean Debian needs to be the sole or 
primary focus of your essay. No way. Your arguments are your own, they 
are strong and most important, are written in a way that the 
non-developer world can munch on, digest, and understand (and you are 
calling for a new way to write documentation and this is the real heart 
of your essay and why this project is important and new and must go 

But just couple of paragraphs on Debian's critiques (and perhaps the 
limits of their critique as well) would boost your own arguments and 
connect your critique to the existing history of debate over the FDL.

Maybe I am totally off here so I would love to hear if this is just 
makes things more complicated? Again I like to think our critique is 
collective as well as individual so I like to think about how we honor 
and make explicit whenever we can.

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