Debian and non-free

Version 0.2

Pierre Machard

Introduction. Debian GNU/Linux, Debian GNU/Hurd, Debian BSD, etc., are Free Operating Systems. The members of the Debian Project, the organization producing the Debian GNU/Linux system, have created the Debian Social Contract in order to explain the philosophy of the whole distribution. The Debian Free Software Guidelines, or DFSG, are part of the contract; initially designed as a set of commitments that we agree to abide by, they have been adopted by the free software community as the basis of the Open Source Definition. The Guidelines are as follows:

The Debian archive is divided into different parts:

  • main,

  • contrib,

  • non-free

Every package in main must comply with the DFSG, and must not depend on any package outside main for its compilation or execution. Packages in contrib must comply with the DFSG but may depend on packages other than that present in main or outside the debian archive. For example, the installer package for the IBM Java Development Kit is in contrib. Packages in non-free are not DFSG compliant.

Why a non-free archive? In Bruce Perens' announcement of Debian 1.1 on Wed, 1 May 1996 we read: "While all the main components of Debian are free software, we provide a non-free directory for programs that aren't freely redistributable, and CD manufacturers may be able to distribute the programs we've placed in that directory, depending on their license terms with the authors of those software packages. CD manufacturers can also distribute the non-free software they get from other sources on the same CD. This is nothing new: GPL-ed and commercial software are distributed on the same CD by many manufacturers now. We still encourage software authors to release the programs they write as free software." Bruce also said: "A few non-critical programs that are not freely redistributable are in the non-free directory of our FTP archive, but none of these are necessary to install or operate the system."

Is non-free part of the Debian System? No. The Social Contract tells us (paragraph 5) "The software in these directories (non-free and contrib) is not part of the Debian system, although it has been configured for use with Debian." Debian merely happens to provide a place for them on its servers.

Is the non-free archive a point of contention? Yes. Some Debian Developers have been asking for the removal of non-free for years. On June 7, 2000, John Goerzen proposed "Non-free Archive Removal". Because of a then-absent project secretary, a binding vote was never held. Recently, John Goerzen proposed this once again. According to Goerzen, "the distinction between non-free and the rest has caused substantial confusion for years. The line between "support" and non-support is grey". People often fail to understand that non-free is not a part of Debian because, for example, the bug tracking system is used by non-free software. I was also confused, which is why I answered Joerg Jaspert, my Application Manager, by saying "non-free is a part of Debian". That is also why I am writing this document. Non-free is not part of the Debian Distribution, but you can frequently find the non-free archive next to the main archive. Likewise, you can find non-free support in the Bug Tracking System. As a result, the boundary between non-free and the Debian Distribution is not clear to some Debian developers, let alone to non-developers. This situation has been underlined by Manoj Srivastava in a recent e-mail to debian-devel: "However, if the distinction is lost to a notable debian developer, I would much rather dump the non free software than have the message of freedom be diluted."