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The GNU Free Documentation License December 24, 2007

Posted by keito in : Licenses , trackback

The GNU Free Documentation License, or the GFDL, is a free license probably best known for being the license used by Wikipedia. It was designed by the Free Software Foundation, which is the parent body of the GNU Project (including Linux) and other famous licenses such as the GNU General Public License (GPL).

The GFDL was originally designed for licensing software documentation for free software products. As the Preamble states, the license was developed “because free software needs free documentation: a free program should come with manuals providing the same freedoms that the software does.” However, the license goes on to state that the license can be used for other, more general documents (such as Wikipedia).

In a nutshell, the GFDL offers licensees the ability to “copy and distribute the [work] in any medium, either commercially or noncommercially,” and allows licensees to modify that work and redistribute it — provided that the derivative work be made available under the same terms as the original. The GFDL shares this viral quality with the GNU GPL, the other major license that the Free Software Foundation provides. This locks modifiers and distributors into the same licensing scheme; you can’t, for example, take a GFDL-licensed work, make a derivative, and release it for non-commercial use only.

One controversial aspect of the GFDL is that it provides provisions for “Secondary Sections” (basically, any sections in the work that describes the author or publisher’s connection to the work). These sections may not be modified in any resulting derivatives, and are called invariant sections. (If they are modified, the resulting copies must be redistributed under a different title). Secondary sections usually include documents detailing the philosophy of the original author (in the GFDL-licensed Emacs manual, for example, it is a lengthy section in the form of a Manifesto). Apparently this was written into the GFDL so that subsequent authors of documentation, who were sometimes in violation of the original philosophies as stipulated by the original author, would not be able to change the original manifestations thereof.

Another more practical problem of the GFDL is its full license text provision. Any distribution of GFDL-licensed material is required to include a copyright notice as well as the full text of the GNU Free Documentation License, which, when printed on US Letter size paper, is almost 8 pages long. Not only is this a problem, for example, when reprinting a GFDL work in a book, it’s an even bigger problem when all you need to do is redistribute one small image for inclusion in, say, a magazine.

Although it’s still rather rare for GFDL-licensed content to appear in print, the full license text provision of the GFDL has already led to some unwieldiness. For example, on Wikibooks, a Wikipedia sister project that collaboratively writes GFDL-licensed books instead of an encyclopedia, completed books are often distributed in PDF form. PDF such as these come with an 8-page appendix with the GFDL license text, complete with a paragraph on “How to use this License for your documents.”

While this is all well and good for spreading the GFDL, it leads to wasted paper and frankly, it looks rather unprofessional to have all this stuck to the back of a book. The GFDL still has a sense of the Unix geek ethos — the war they’re fighting is more guerilla than anything professional.

There are, however, alternatives to the GFDL that provide much of its liberties as well as its protections. A very good example of this is the Creative Commons licenses, specifically the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (CC-BY-SA) license. In the next post I’ll cover Wikipedia and its relationship to the GFDL, and then go on to cover the Creative Commons licenses.

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