Chris Allegretta: When Non-Free is "Free Enough"
Jul 02, 2001, 23:53 (43 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Chris Allegretta)
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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
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
Redistribution of this release is permitted as follows, or by
(a) In free-of-charge or at-cost distributions by non-profit
(b) In free-of-charge distributions by for-profit concerns;
(c) Inclusion in a CD-ROM collection of free-of-charge, shareware,
non-proprietary software for which a fee may be charged for the
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permission" clause, but that's a highly outdated means of licensing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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?