[Fsf-Debian] Non-free firmware question during install

Michael Gilbert mgilbert at debian.org
Wed Aug 8 21:49:28 UTC 2012

On Wed, Aug 8, 2012 at 9:22 AM, Ian Jackson wrote:
> Michael Gilbert writes ("Re: [Fsf-Debian] Non-free firmware question during install"):
>> For what it's worth, the "Documentation" section of the FSF Guidelines
>> for Free System Distributions [0] state the following:
>>     What would be unacceptable is for the documentation to give
>>     people instructions for installing a nonfree program on the system,
>>     or mention conveniences they might gain by doing so.
>>     For a borderline case, a clear and serious exhortation not to use
>>     the nonfree program would move it to the acceptable side of the line.
>> So those guidelines could seemingly be satisfied if the discussion
>> were include a persuasive argument to avoid the non-free files.
> If we're being honest it's difficult to see what such a persuasive
> argument would look like.  "We recommend you go and buy a different
> computer"?  "We recommend you give up on Debian and use OpenSuSE"?
> These are not very plausible, let alone persuasive.

The argument would be something in line with the FSF's perspective on
the matter.  Something like:

   Unable to load <firmware file> for <hardware device>.  Please be aware
   that this limitation may lead to limited or no functionality for this
   particular device, although depending on the features you need, it may
   also be no problem at all.

   The most likely reason that Debian does not currently include this file
   is that the source code is not available via a DFSG-free license, and
   by default Debian does not enable non-free components.

   Even so, you retain the freedom to make your own software free-ness
   decisions.  So, if you conclude that you need this firmware to fully
   utilize your hardware, you will need to either locate the firmware file of
   this name or enable Debian's non-free repository and install the
   appropriate firmware package.

   If you choose this path, please be aware that non-free software itself
   limits the control you have over your system.  In this circumstance,
   you will not be able to modify the code supporting this hardware if
   you find that it does not suite your needs.  Also, this code cannot
   be audited (for e.g. security issues) or improved in any way.  More
   information about the philosophy of free software is available at:

   If you opt against this path, please consider replacing this hardware
   with a device fully supported by free software:

   A third path may be a free drop-in replacement that did not exist at
   the time this code was frozen.  You may be able to find such a
   replacement via internet search.

>> Although a lingering question is whether program output can be
>> considered documentation.  I would argue so as for example "program
>> --help" is a kind of documentation.  Then again perhaps the FSF would
>> be willing to expand the applicability of that section to lift the
>> documentation-only interpretation?
> I think going down this route to excuse statements made by programs
> would amount to sophistry.  I don't think there is any meaningful
> difference.

I'm looking at it from a pedantic perspective in case the FSF says, no
our guidelines do not apply to program output, only to documentation.
If they don't say that, then such nuanced sophistry is of course

Best wishes,

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