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