FDL vs GPL – why FLOSS Manuals is changing their free documentation license choice

License Change

FLOSS Manuals is changing the license of all material in the repository from the Free Documentation License to the GNU General Public License (GPL). Why? Well… the issue of licenses and documentation is a frustrating road to travel. There are many ‘free licenses’ in the world, but none of them work well as documentation licenses if you have the following prerequisites:

  • compatibility with the GPL
  • ease of use

Those are pretty simple parameters, but alas there is nothing out there that fulfills our criteria. The Free Documentation License, which we started with, has a number of issues and, unfortunately, the redraft for the license does not make any steps to improve the situation (http://gplv3.fsf.org/doclic-dd1-guide.html).

Problems with the FDL

In particular :

  • the FDL does not allow for easy duplication and modification (an absolute necessity in this day and age)
  • it does not allow for the easy inclusion of documentation in the software itself
  • it appears to be written for hard copy books and does not engage issues of digital documentation very well
  • it is difficult to know how to implement

These issues emanate from the founding rationale of the license.  There are two particular assumptions that lead to problematic clauses:

1. The FDL seems to assume that technical writing should contain embedded free software political editorial. I refer to this statement (amongst others):

"Our manuals also include sections that state our political position about free software. We mark these as "invariant", so that they cannot be changed or removed. The GFDL makes provisions for these "invariant sections". 

Political editorial is not a prerequisite (nor, in my opinion, desired) for good technical writing.

2. the FDL assumes documentation writing is a book business. I refer to :

 "the GFDL has clauses that help publishers of free manuals make a profit from selling copies" 

‘Free Licenses’ should not shy away from the commercial use of the substance it is applied to. That is the principle of freedom – to use the software or documentation as you wish, as long as you preserve the same freedoms for others. However, the focus should be about preserving freedom, not preserving particular business models.  This rationale is troublesome, especially when you want to distribute free documentation and the license actually makes it harder to do that.

The above are just the main concerns with the rationale of the FDL. These two issues have consequences in the license that make it very difficult to use if you wish to write free documentation for free software.

What FDL clauses cause problems?

There are many references in the FDL that indicate that the writers could only imagine documentation in the form of a book. There are constant references to ‘Title Pages’, ‘Covers’ etc. One particular clause that is hard to maintain is this section which stipulates that a modified version of a work must:

"A. Use in the Title Page (and on the covers, if any) a title distinct from that of the Document, and from those of previous versions (which should, if there were any, be listed in the History section of the Document). You may use the same title as a previous version if the original publisher of that version gives permission."

There are so many issues with this statement that it’s hard to know where to begin. What, for example, is the role of a ‘History Section’ in documentation that might be one ‘page’ long? The main problem with this clause, however, is that digital documentation, in the FLOSS Manuals world at least, should flow like water from one author to the other with as much flexibility to add, alter, delete, and remix as much as possible. Requiring a ‘traceback’ to the original author so you can use the same title is cumbersome, stifles re-use of material, and logistically hard to maintain in this age of free-flowing digital document distribution.

Here is another ‘book’ issue which limits freedom:

" If you publish printed copies (or copies in media that commonly have printed covers) of the Document, numbering more than 100, and the Document's license notice requires Cover Texts, you must enclose the copies in covers that carry, clearly and legibly, all these Cover Texts: Front-Cover Texts on the front cover, and Back-Cover Texts on the back cover. Both covers must also clearly and legibly identify you as the publisher of these copies. The front cover must present the full title with all words of the title equally prominent and visible. You may add other material on the covers in addition. Copying with changes limited to the covers, as long as they preserve the title of the Document and satisfy these conditions, can be treated as verbatim copying in other respects."

Well, FLOSS Manuals doesn’t care how many documents you might publish. Go ahead, print as many as you like, however you like (well, with a quick read of how to apply the GPL)… as free documentation writers we don’t want to get involved in complex clauses involving ‘Cover Texts’ and ‘Front-Cover Texts’ which are going to limit your freedom to use the documentation as you want.

Can the GPL be used for documentation?

So is the GPL really applicable to documentation? This statement is interesting:
“It is possible to use the GPL for a manual, but the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) is much better for manuals.”

The FSF further states the GPL can be used for documentation,
“You can apply the GPL to any kind of work, as long as it is clear what constitutes the “source code” for the work. The GPL defines this as the preferred form of the work for making changes in it.”