Debian: GNU FDL without invariant sections is Free

Ever since it was first released there was a very controversial discussion about the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) by some people of the Debian Project. The escalation did not end before some people repeatedly asked to remove all DFSG licensed documentation from Debian, a step that would leave Debian rather poor in documentation and make sure Debian would lose many people to other distributions, e.g. Ubuntu.

One of the central points of criticism are the so-called "invariant sections", sections that cannot be modified by anyone but the original author of a piece of documentation. These sections are defined in the GFDL as:

    The "Invariant Sections" are certain Secondary Sections whose titles
    are designated, as being those of Invariant Sections, in the notice
    that says that the Document is released under this License. If a
    section does not fit the above definition of Secondary then it is not
    allowed to be designated as Invariant. The Document may contain zero
    Invariant Sections. If the Document does not identify any Invariant
    Sections then there are none.

in other words: If something is related to the substance of the documentation (e.g. the DNS system), it is not possible to declare anything about that topic (e.g. a part about root servers) invariant. You could, however add a small poem about butterflies and declare it invariant.


The point many people are making is that it would be incredibly inconvenient if people were to include political opinions, poems, pictures and other things in technical documentation — especially since all later versions will have to maintain all the invariant sections of all the previous authors.

Indeed this would seem extremely burdensome, and I think it could effectively make documentation useless in some cases. But then: Who determines one has to take a certain downstream version? We could simply choose upstream versions with fewer invariant sections and work on those. Also, noone can forbid an author to do stupid or useless things with their work. But does "useless for me" automatically mean "non-free"?

I don’t think so, and explained this on debian-legal three years ago, where I proposed the following policy in 2003:

     1) The GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) is a free documentation
    license; recommended for use in Debian without invariant

    2a) Documents without invariant sections go into main.

    2b) Documents with invariant sections are to be reviewed by the
    Debian Documentation Project whether the invariant section makes
    the document technically unmaintainable.

  It even leaves room for the assumption that some people might stretch the license by trying to make primary sections invariant — which is not really allowed by the GFDL, but was the fear that many people at Debian had.


Unfortunately it seemed that this approach was not to the liking of some people who wanted to see the GFDL excluded entirely, and for a time it seemed like this could be the official Debian position. So it was with some relief that I saw the results of the vote and therefore the new official position of Debian:

    GFDL-licensed works without unmodifiable sections are free

This is good news for everyone in  Free Software, and will hopefully help to bridge a gap that — in my opinion — should never have been allowed to open.

So I thank all who participated in the vote, which was conducted in the usual Debian manner, which is based on the Condorcet method and sometimes makes the election results somewhat hard to understand at first sight.

In this specific case, I was also confused by the different majorities needed for different options:

    [ ] Choice 1: GFDL-licensed works are unsuitable for main in all cases
    [ ] Choice 2: GFDL-licensed works without unmodifiable sections are free
    [ ] Choice 3: GFDL-licensed works are compatible with the DFSG [needs 3:1]
    [ ] Choice 4: Further discussion

So the option "GFDL is compatible with DFSG" needs a 3:1 majority, while "GFDL is incompatible with DFSG" needs a simple majority. According to the Debian constitution, that is the necessary majority to amend the constitution, but I could not see any request to amend the constitution in the proposal for "GFDL-licensed works are compatible with the DFSG" — it merely seemed the opposite of "GFDL-licensed works are unsuitable for main in all cases".

So at first sight I have to admit it looked a little bit like the equivalent of

    [ ] Choice 1: Bush for president of the United States
    [ ] Choice 2: Kerry for president of the United States [needs 3:1]

to me. Discussing this with Fernanda, she told me the reason for this was the recent change of the Debian Social Contract to classify all "works" as "software",  but that does not seem to make a lot of sense:

I understood this vote to be precisely about determining whether Debian developers consider the GFDL to be compatible with the DFSG, or whether they think the GFDL is incompatible with the DFSG. Selecting the majorities based on the assumption that GFDL is incompatible with the DFSG — and thus accepting it would be equivalent to changing the constitution — seems odd to me.

But maybe I simply don’t understand the Debian voting system well enough, so if you can point out where I’ve gone wrong in my thinking, that would be appreciated.

About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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