On licensing terms and playing it safe

If you didn’t read my post about FAAD2 licensing this post will make really little sense, so I’d ask you to read that entry first.

Proably most of my readers know that the Debian project always tried and tries to provide to their users the most free collection of packages possible with every release, and that explains the reason behind two of the biggest licensequake we seen in the past months: the cdrecord fork to cdrkit because of Shilling changing the license of the build system of the former, and then weeks-long debate about Debian project re-branding Firefox and Thunderbird into IceWeasel and IceDove (I won’t comment on the fact that there are now two forks of Firefox named IceWeasel because both Debian and GNU project use the same name for two different codebases).

After all the debates, the blog posts that crossed many different Planets, one expects Debian to always stand for pure Free Software, but it doesn’t seem to always be the case.

When I reported my blog post to siretart (one of the multimedia maintainers of Ubuntu, who follows xine pretty closely and thus I have quite a bit of contact with), he then talked with another Ubuntu dev, who told him that they knew of the issue too, and thus they are still using the latest CVS snapshot that does not contain the advertising clause, but Debian actually packaged the 2.5 version, so he opened a week ago a bug about it, Debian bug #403117 . Let’s pick a quote from the answer of the first Debian developer to answer the bug (the only one at the time I’m writing):

However, it may be the case that the copyright holder legitimately intends to place the work under the GPL, and believes that the follow-up comments are merely a clarification of the GPL’s requirements. The GPL does include several provisions regarding displaying copyright information, and it’s possible that the author believed this requirement was the same as GPL 2c).

I would consider this an etch-ignorable issue while the matter was taken up with the upstream for clarification.

So, instead of preserving the freedom of they users, Debian seem to “assume” that it wsa just a clarification of GPL’s requirements, as the GPL requires the copyright to be displayed, and that the authors simply misunderstood… even if FSF already said at least twice that the FAAD2 license is incompatible with the GNU General Public License 2.0 and even if it’s general knowledge among Free Software developers that the BSD 4-clause license is GPL-incompatible just because of an advertising clause exactly alike this one (compare with this FAQ).

Okay, it’s all probable that Nero didn’t really understand what they were doing, and that they don’t ask their legal department when they do change a license, see not everybody is a big company which makes money out of software… but wait they are… nevermind, here I’m not talking about Nero, I do hope in their good faith, but about Debian handling of the problem.

So, first of all, let’s see the term 2c of GNU General Public License:

c) If the modified program normally reads commands interactively when run, you must cause it, when started running for such interactive use in the most ordinary way, to print or display an announcement including an appropriate copyright notice and a notice that there is no warranty (or else, saying that you provide a warranty) and that users may redistribute the program under these conditions, and telling the user how to view a copy of this License. (Exception: if the Program itself is interactive but does not normally print such an announcement, your work based on the Program is not required to print an announcement.)

and compare with the FAAD2 clause:

** Software using this code must display the following message visibly in or
** on each copy of the software:
** "FAAD2 AAC/HE-AAC/HE-AACv2/DRM decoder (c) Nero AG, www.nero.com"
** in, for example, the about-box or help/startup screen.

«Software using that code» is not the same of «modified program», not even for a non-native speaker, why should it be for a lawyer? But even considering the idea they might have misunderstood, why playing it risky? If Nero intended the current license, Debian is infringing it, and they are thus distributing binaries that are not Free at all; also they consider the issue of clearing this up not worth to address before their next Etch release, so they’ll probably end up redistributing a release with infringing material…

No, I don’t want to start a flame because of this, but sincerely, I was expecting better from Debian, especially after all the mess they created with Shilling and Mozilla.