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XFree86 License Causes Distros to Rethink Plans

Feb 18, 2004, 19:00 (19 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

A recent licensing change for XFree86 code has prompted several Linux distribution projects to reject the next version of XFree86 in their upcoming releases.

The first distribution to make a public stand against the inclusion of XFree86 4.4 was Mandrake Linux in an announcement made to the Cooker mailing list on Monday by one of the lead developers of the Cooker branch. This announcement simply stated that the next version of Mandrake Linux, 10.0, would have the 4.3 version of XFree86, based on license reasons.

The licence, first announced on January 29 by XFree86 president David Dawes, is technically known as the 1.1 edition of the XFree86 license. License 1.1 was intended, according to Dawes' announcement, to "strengthen the 'except claim you wrote it' clause of the Project's licensing philosophy regarding binary distributions of XFree86."

Specifically, the license now requires that full credit be given in source and binary code to the XFree86 Project anytime the xlib files are used.

Developers have indicated on various mailing lists that such inclusion of credit would be logistically difficult to implement at this time, and in their opinion, such a license would be incompatible with the GNU General Public License (GPL).

The clauses in the XFree86 License 1.1 that developers have cited as problematic include:

"Redistributions of source code must retain the above copyright notice, this list of conditions, and the following disclaimer.

"Redistributions in binary form must reproduce the above copyright notice, this list of conditions and the following disclaimer in the documentation and/or other materials provided with the distribution, and in the same place and form as other copyright, license and disclaimer information.

"The end-user documentation included with the redistribution, if any, must include the following acknowledgment: 'This product includes software developed by The XFree86 Project, Inc (http://www.xfree86.org/) and its contributors', in the same place and form as other third-party acknowledgments. Alternately, this acknowledgment may appear in the software itself, in the same form and location as other such third-party acknowledgments."

Such requirements would be incompatible with the GPL, because the GPL does not allow for such strictures to be placed on any code within a GPL'd ecosystem of software. Within Clause 6 of the GPL is the statement: "You may not impose any further restrictions on the recipients' exercise of the rights granted herein." The new XFree86 License would seem counter to this clause.

After Mandrake's initial move to stick with XFree86 4.3, developer representatives from Red Hat, Debian, and Gentoo made similar statements that their distributions would also hold to XFree86 4.3 for license incompatibility reasons.

"Red Hat is a strong supporter of open source software and technologies, and the new XFree86 license seems to be intended to restricting existing freedom for no real world technical or other gains," stated Red Hat's Mike Harris on the FreeDesktop mailing list.

"Our current plan, is to use the freedesktop.org xlibs for the client side libraries. For the clients, utilities, X server, and other bits, we have not yet made a 100% solid decision, however a couple of alternatives are being explored," Harris added.

Harris' comments were echoed by Debian's Daniel Stone, who made this terse statement on the same list: "Debian will not ship anything with the 1.1 license, full stop."

Gentoo's Donnie Berkholz had similar remarks on the gname/Gentoo list: "We won't be adding versions of XFree86 with the 1.1 license to the tree, so don't be surprised when 4.3.99.903 doesn't show up with the new license."

The shift away from future versions has also occured outside the Linux community. Theo de Raadt from OpenBSD also announced that operating system will not be using the 1.1 License.

"Like other projects, we will not be incorporating new code from David Dawes into the XFree86 codebase used in OpenBSD. All such changes have to be skipped, rewritten, or you can contact the XFree86 group and place your own efforts to repair this damage," de Raadt said in a posting on the openbsd-misc mailing list.

de Raadt elaborated on his decision in the same post: "I've tried to negotiate with David Dawes, and show him that his new license is not acceptable, and he has been hostile and it has gone nowhere. He keeps insisting that his license is a standard BSD licenses, yet, he won't use the same words that Berkeley used; if his words were intended to be compatible to the Berkeley spirit then he would be happy to use the same words; but he is not, and insists on different words which a lot of the community has trouble with.

"It seems like every 8 years or so we have to go through some period where someone tries to take free software and makes it less free because they don't feel they are getting enough credit," de Raadt added.

As of press time, attempts to contact Dawes via e-mail have not been answered.

Several members of the distributions' development teams have expressed that they are seeking alternatives to using the xlibs in the future. The impact this will have on the XFree86 Project is not clear, though de Raadt did offer one potentially prophetic statement:

"This is final; if that license stands, there will be forking."

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