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Chris Allegretta: When Non-Free is "Free Enough"

Jul 02, 2001, 23:53 (43 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Chris Allegretta)

[ Thanks to Chris Allegretta for this link. ]

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By Chris Allegretta

The University of Washington's Pine mailer. A popular piece of software, indeed, as is its editor component, Pico. So much so that most people turn a blind eye to its license: a license, I feel, that is as bad as anything that has ever come out of Redmond.

Virtually every major GNU/Linux distribution ships binaries of Pine and Pico with the notable exception of Debian. After all these programs are veritable mainstays of the Unix world. Ironically, according to the legal terms of the program, Debian may be the only distribution legally allowed to distribute the program!

From the Pine Legal Notice:
Redistribution of this release is permitted as follows, or by mutual agreement:
(a) In free-of-charge or at-cost distributions by non-profit concerns;
(b) In free-of-charge distributions by for-profit concerns;
(c) Inclusion in a CD-ROM collection of free-of-charge, shareware, or
non-proprietary software for which a fee may be charged for the packaged
distribution.

Let's say producer PhatHat makes a "Super Ultimate PowerPack 10 CD Edition" distribution and sells it for $40 with support. That would appear to satisfy section (c) of the notice, correct? But what if they also include on those CDs binary only, "proprietary" drivers for oh, say, the latest Ovidian video card. Now are they in violation of the Pine license? I'd say yes. There is the "written permission" clause, but that's a highly outdated means of licensing software in the wonderful electronic age in which we live.

However, because of Debian's stance on not shipping non-free software in their standard distribution, they could pass this portion of the licensing terms for distributing Pine. But Debian doesn't put Pine into their main archive. In fact they wont even ship binaries of Pine or Pico! The source code, along with various patch files, can be found in Debian's non-free section. The distribution terms violate the Debian Free Software Guidelines:

The license must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with the licensed software. For example, the license must not insist that all other programs distributed on the same medium must be free software.

Suppose tomorrow the Pine license changes to something more restrictive, say, completely closed source, binary only redistribution. Are all those distributors who were already in violation of the license going to simply drop the package from their distribution? I doubt it.

Why, you ask? Simple, because they can't stop distributing the program, users have come to rely upon it to read their email and edit their documents! Read the debian-user mailing list sometime and see how many times users of other distributions scream "Ahh! where's Pine and Pico, my life will end without them!" The users are not at fault, their old "Open Source" operating system included Pine and Pico, so why shouldn't Debian? The programs are "Open Source" after all, aren't they?

The thing is, they aren't. The Pine license is not a Free Software license, nor does it meet the Open Source Definition. Why is it included in the distribution, then? Well, because it's "free enough."

So back to our new license scenario. I hear you saying "I highly doubt Pine will go proprietary, it's published by a university". Fair enough. Suppose instead that Pine's maintainers get new jobs more demanding of their time, or something else stops them from maintaining the program full time. Now a security issue arises that requires patches to the source code. What can our distributors do then?

Well, what is normally done in situations like this is that programmers from outside the project will go back to the last release of the program, and fork a new version of the program from there with their own patches. This is what the OpenSSH developers did when the original ssh program went commercial and there was no support of the older, more open version.

So they can just fork a new copy of the program, right? Wrong. You can't fork Pine and produce modified binaries, this is forbidden by UW, it's specifically addressed in the Pine FAQ. In fact, later on the FAQ brazenly states, In particular, the earliest Pine licenses included the words: "Permission to use, copy, modify, and distribute this software... is hereby granted," but some people tried to pervert the meaning of that sentence to define "this software" to include derivative works of "this software". The intent has always been that you can re-distribute the UW distribution, but if you modify it, you have created a derivative work and must ask permission to redistribute it.

So, people who support Open Source and Free Software are perverts for thinking you should be able to ship modified binaries of a program! The wording could have been "change" or "twist", but the word chosen was "pervert". I feel this is an intentional slander of proponents of the GPL and other Free Software licenses.

Why do I feel this is licenses is as bad as Microsoft's licenses? I don't, I think it's worse. With any commercial license, you do not ever expect to see or have rights over the source code to the software. In the case of Pine, users are lulled into thinking they have rights to do what they want with the software, but really they don't. And if UW makes the license more proprietary or simply stops updating it, there's nothing they can do about it.

So, what can we do? For one thing, stop referring to Pine and Pico as Open Source! And if you can't handle that (and you know who you are), at least don't nominate them for awards specifically for Open Source programs! Also do not lump Pine and Pico in with other GPL covered programs on web pages or when discussing Free Software, as this may confuse people into thinking that Pine and Pico are in fact also Free Software programs, which they are not.

Another thing you can do it educate your peers, when they say Pine is "Free" or "Open Source", mention that the license restricts modified redistribution, and have them read it over for themselves.

You can also use free alternatives to these programs. The mutt mailer is very similar program to Pine, once you get used to the slight difference of starting up at your messages and not at a menu. There are keymaps you can download to make mutt behave like Pine. You can also use (weren't you waiting for the plug?) GNU nano instead of Pico to edit your files.

Yes, I am the author of GNU nano. I am biased in this regard. But nano is itself evidence that Pine may indeed be "free enough" for people, when perhaps it shouldn't be. Pine and Pico have been around for ten years, and nano is the first project I'm aware of that attempts to remedy the licensing problem by making a complete clone of the software starting from scratch. The question comes down to: do you want full rights over the software you use, or is Pine "free enough" for you?

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