XFree86 License Causes Distros to Rethink Plans

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

“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 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

“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

“This is final; if that license stands, there will be

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Developer Insider for top news, trends, & analysis