Why is Fedora not a Free GNU/Linux distributions?

Alexandre Oliva aoliva at redhat.com
Mon Jul 14 09:23:41 UTC 2008

On Jul 13, 2008, Kevin Kofler <kevin.kofler at chello.at> wrote:

> Alexandre Oliva <aoliva <at> redhat.com> writes:
>> With the current policies, more and more non-Free Software is being
>> welcomed into Fedora.

> You're intentionally omitting one detail: all that non-Free software
> isn't software which runs on the CPU, it's firmware which runs on
> peripherals.

I'm omitting it because it's irrelevant.  It's software, and it's not
Free, therefore it's part of an unethical and immoral system of
controlling users rather than empowering them.

Why should it matter which of the many CPUs of a system the software
runs on?

> The thing is that most hardware these days has some form of embedded
> processor and is driven by firmware.

And there are a number of such devices for which the firmware is
Free.  We need more of those.

> There's only one difference: the hardware which "does not need"
> firmware actually has that firmware on some ROM inside the device.

There are such devices, indeed.  Some of them use actual ROM.  These
are unfortunate, but the fact that you cannot change them is not
necessarily an unethical imposition from the vendor; it just so
happens that it's impossible to modify ROM.  An ethical vendor might
still provide you with source code and instructions on how to replace
the ROM upon request, if at all possible.

Others use EPROM, such that you're not forced to load firmware just to
get the system to work.  Like BIOSes, you often run into bugs, and
vendors will often refuse to fix them for you unless you have very
deep pockets, and if you can't fix them yourself, you're out of luck.
How's that good for you or anyone?

> But recently, more and more hardware manufacturers decided to save
> costs by removing that ROM and having the computer upload the
> firmware instead, which is why firmware is included with operating
> systems.

Right.  So they save some, charge customers the same, transfer costs
to software distributors, and neither users nor software developers
get any of the benefits.  What's in it for them, again?

Why should Free Software operating systems take the burden of
including, distributing, supporting, and updating these pieces of
software on behalf of the vendors themselves?  Why shouldn't they just
direct people to the vendors instead, and keep the costs and the
negative feedback where they should have always remained?

I've long proposed something along the lines of Codeina, that educates
people about the problem of proprietary media formats, to educate
people about the problem of devices that require non-Free firmware.
Fedora could educate people about the problem while at the same time
educating people as to how they can work around the problem they have,
and why they should try to avoid the problem next time they go
shopping for computers.  Making things "just work" just makes people
comfortable with the problem, *and* misleads a number of people into
believing it actually works.  Instead, making it detect the problem
and explain to the user what's going on, why Fedora won't ship that
stuff, and why the vendor should have offered the user the firmware
the machine requires, in a way that respected the users' freedom, at
least some vendors might feel the pressure and start shipping their
firmware in ways that respect their users.  And then Fedora (and
anyone) could include it and make users' lives freer and more

> The real problem to solve is that there is almost NO Free firmware,
> not that distributions include non-Free firmware.

Exactly.  It's not endorsing and hiding it that you'll educate people
to put pressure on vendors where it matters.  And by actively
educating people, they won't be able to blame Fedora when it doesn't
"just work"; they'll rather realize that others have been fooling

Of course, none of this is supposed to preclude the user from
installing non-Free Software if they decide to.  Telling users what to
do or not to do goes against their own freedom.  Just like "forcing"
them to have, install and redistribute this kind of software goes
against their own freedom.

There's no reason this stuff needs to be part of the operating system.
It's a matter of trading off freedom and education opportunity for
short-term convenience.  And I really mean short-term: anyone who's
ever found themselves locked out of a desirable upgrade or switch
because of some non-Free driver or firmware understands at least part
of the long-term picture.

Alexandre Oliva         http://www.lsd.ic.unicamp.br/~oliva/
Free Software Evangelist  oliva@{lsd.ic.unicamp.br, gnu.org}
FSFLA Board Member       ¡Sé Libre! => http://www.fsfla.org/
Red Hat Compiler Engineer   aoliva@{redhat.com, gcc.gnu.org}

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