The Forgotten "F": A Tale of Fedora's Foundations

Stephen Gallagher sgallagh at
Mon Apr 21 12:36:55 UTC 2014

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Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Fedora's Foundations: “Freedom,
Friends, Features, First", particularly in relation to some very
sticky questions about where certain things fit (such as third-party
repositories, free and non-free web services, etc.)

Many of these discussions get hung up on wildly different
interpretations of what the "Freedom" Foundation means. First, I'll
reproduce the exact text of the "Freedom" Foundation[1]:

"Freedom represents dedication to free software and content. We
believe that advancing software and content freedom is a central goal
for the Fedora Project, and that we should accomplish that goal
through the use of the software and content we promote. By including
free alternatives to proprietary code and content, we can improve the
overall state of free and open source software and content, and limit
the effects of proprietary or patent encumbered code on the Project.
Sometimes this goal prevents us from taking the easy way out by
including proprietary or patent encumbered software in Fedora, or
using those kinds of products in our other project work. But by
concentrating on the free software and content we provide and promote,
the end result is that we are able to provide: releases that are
predictable and 100% legally redistributable for everyone; innovation
in free and open source software that can equal or exceed closed
source or proprietary solutions; and, a completely free project that
anyone can emulate or copy in whole or in part for their own purposes."

The language in this Foundation is sometimes dangerously unclear. For
example, it pretty much explicitly forbids the use of non-free
components in the creation of Fedora (sorry, folks: you can't use
Photoshop to create your package icon!). At the same time, we
regularly allow the packaging of software that can interoperate with
non-free software; we allow Pidgin and other IM clients to talk to
Google and AOL, we allow email clients to connect to Microsoft
Exchange, etc. The real problem is that every time a question comes up
against the Freedom Foundation, Fedora contributors diverge into two
armed camps: the hard-liners who believe that Fedora should never
under any circumstances work (interoperate) with proprietary services
and the the folks who believe that such a hard-line approach is a path
to irrelevance.

To make things clear: I'm personally closer to the second camp than
the first. In fact, in keeping with the subject of this email, I'd
like to suggest a fifth Foundation, one to ultimately supersede all
the rest: "Functional". Here's a straw-man phrasing of this proposal:

Functional means that the Fedora community recognizes this to be the
ultimate truth: the purpose of an operating system is to enable its
users to accomplish the set of tasks they need to perform.

With this in place, it would admittedly water down the Freedom
Foundation slightly. "Freedom" would essentially be reduced to: the
tools to reproduce the Fedora Build Environment and all packages
(source and binary) shipped from this build system must use a
compatible open-source license and not be patent-encumbered. Fedora
would strive to always provide and promote open-source alternatives to
existing (or emerging) proprietary technologies, but accepts that
attracting users means not telling them that they must change all of
their tools to do so).

The "Functional" Foundation should be placed above the other four and
be the goal-post that we measure decisions against: "If we make this
change, are we reducing our users' ability to work with the software
they want/need to?". Any time the answer to that question would be
"yes", we have to recognize that this translates into lost users (or
at the very least, users that are working around our intentions).

Now, let me be further clear on this: I am not in any way advocating
the use of closed-source software or services. I am not suggesting
that we start carrying patent-encumbered software. I think it is
absolutely the mission of Fedora to show people that FOSS is the
better long-term solution. However, in my experience a person who is
exposed to open source and allowed to migrate in their own time is one
who is more likely to become a lifelong supporter. A person who is
told "if you switch to Fedora, you must stop using Application X" is a
person who is not running Fedora.

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