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Why Debian Doesn't Include KDE

Joseph Carter has spent "countless hours" working on licensing issues with the KDE team in the hopes of fixing the problems that have kept KDE out of the Debian distribution. In today's editorial, he gives his view of the impasse that has been reached and why it's been a loss for everyone in the community.I can't say I expect this message to be seen at this stage amidst all the confusion that a KDE-license-problems message on Slashdot usually entails, but I feel I must nevertheless write it as someone directly involved.

I am a Debian developer. I'm also one of the people who worked with Troll Tech in writing the QPL, the license under which Qt version 2 is licensed. I made it through several revisions with them and am even mentioned on their page for the efforts I put into it. I took a lot of fire from a lot of people on a lot of different sides for my work. I'm not sure it was worth it.

My goal was a license which met our Debian Free Software Guidelines and was also compatible with the GPL. I succeeded with the former, but apparently not the latter. The reaction from commercial distributions such as Red Hat often makes me wonder if my "victory" in a free Qt license was actually miserable defeat.

The draft license seen by me last before release of the final QPL was GPL compatible. I was proud of it. So, it seemed, was Troll Tech. And then the final license was released, undoing the parts of my work which made the license GPL compatible, but retaining enough to satisfy the definitions of "Free" many distributions (including Debian) use.

But the license issue remains. Qt is not non-free software. But it's not GPL compatible either. Some KDE core developers admit this privately, but won't do so in public because of the implications: that much of KDE is not legally distributable until they contact some people that are damned scarce these days and make the necessary arrangements.

In short, the GPL says that the whole program must be under its terms before you are allowed to distribute it. It makes a specific exception for things like proprietary libcs and the like, but the exception to that is that you can't distribute them both together, so we'd be stuck even if we considered Qt a system library.

We could distribute the source, but what would be the point in that? Go get it from KDE; theirs is more current anyway. We also don't see much point in splitting off those parts of KDE we can legally distribute because it'd just create version mismatches for people. There is a bit of a moral aspect, too: KDE weakens the legal force of the GPL, and many Debian developers (myself included) take at least some exception to that.

We've been quite open to helping KDE fix the problems with their licenses. I've spent countless hours on it personally and I don't even use KDE (and am not likely to in the future - though I might use a GPL-compatible Qt in my own code). What we're not willing to do is slap a band-aid over the problem and hope it goes away. Three years have already shown us that it will indeed not go away.

The problem is KDE's to fix. They know it, but they'd have to publicly admit they were wrong if they did that. It's not something they're prepared to do. Instead, they continue to defend the position they know full well to be wrong, and they do it by attacking the language of the GPL. Rather than admit they are wrong, they would try to tear down one of this community's central licenses! This is not good for the community -- but I feel they view their own pride as more important than the people they claim to be working on KDE for.

I did say this isn't Troll Tech's problem, and it's not. (Well, that's arguable, I guess, considering that some of the KDE core developers are also Troll Tech employees, but I'll give some benefit of the doubt there..) Troll Tech, however, is in the perfect position to fix the problem once and for all. How? By fixing the QPL.

The QPL does have some mistakes. Some of them aren't serious, some of them are. At least one of them is directly my fault. When this whole mess came up the last time (about 6 months ago), I offered to work with Troll Tech again to make the QPL compatible with the GPL. The issues aren't that big of a deal and Qt is well-enough maintained that their biggest fears at the time of writing the original licenses have proven themselves not a problem.

Troll Tech seemed interested (or the person I spoke to seemed so, anyway) and told me they'd send me an email in a few days after they talked with RMS about the points I brought up. I never heard back.

Flash forward six months. The KDE license issue still isn't resolved after literally years of trying with both KDE and Troll Tech. Will it ever be? I highly doubt it at this point. Enough people are content with it and the commercial distributions are secure in the knowledge that KDE won't get them sued. KDE is easier to use and probably more stable than GNOME. (They both suck if you ask me -- I didn't get involved with this because of wanting KDE in Debian..)

KDE's march toward the Artistic license has been somewhere between dog slow and dead stop. They're in no hurry; only a few distributions such as Debian have decided not to include KDE, and of those that remain, only Debian is likely to change its mind if the licenses are ever straightened out. Frankly, they don't care enough.

For all the good and bad that's come of my work on the Qt license, I've often had to ask myself: Was it really worth it? Honestly, I'm no longer sure. Would I do it again? Only if I were sure the people involved were sincere about really fixing the problems, not making good press on Slashdot by claiming they're fixing the problems.

I've done enough, taken enough flack, watched and been involved with enough flamewars that I know it has to be that way. It HAS to be; otherwise, at the end of the day (or week or month or year as it has come to be with KDE and Qt), nothing really changes except how much you really care anymore. Oh, yes; get involved with this kind of thing with any less than the full support of the people you're working with and you will be burned out or bitter (perhaps both) before you see anything positive happen. And it's really sad, too. I didn't lose the battle for a GPL-compatible Qt. We all lost, and we lost more than a lot of people think.

Joseph Carter <> is a 22-year-old student at a local college in Modesto, CA. He's the leader of the QuakeForge project, a Debian developer, and the guy who helped write the QPL to make sure it's a free license.

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Recent comments

18 Aug 2002 12:37 Avatar nateman

Qt on GPL
I thought that Qt was released under the GPL as
well as the QPL, least it says so on FSF's
license list.

25 May 2002 10:32 Avatar aleric

Re: Meet in the Middle?

> As I understand it, I can
> dynamically link a GPL:ed program to a
> non-GPL:ed library, as long as it is
> dynamic linking. A minor issue, but
> there's the possibility of loopholes
> here.
> At the moment, I don't think the GPL
> properly expresses the intent behind it.
> I must also confess that I'm a bit
> sketchy as to exactly what that intent
> is.

The intend of the GPL is to allow everyone to freely
reuse your code, without any restrictions. But at the
same time preserving that freedom for others for
the resulting derived work.

This is a good thing.

But, the GPL makes an error in its implementation
(which is why I hate it and won't use it when I don't have to)
by making it impossible to use a mixture of source files
with different licenses, in which case you are not allowed
to distribute the resulting binary.

In my humble opinion, a better license would be one
that preserves the rights for the original (&quot;GPL&quot;-ed) code
but not for added code, unless the new author wishes
to use the GPL for his own code too. This could be achieved
by demanding that re-used code needs to be in a (source)
file with the same license, but newly added headers may use
a different license and other object files or libraries that is
being linked with should be allowed to have any license
as well.

The GPL attempts to give even the people who use (buy)
binaries that contains GPL-ed code also access to the
source code, but errornously demands that ALL sources
of the whole binary must be available. Why not just of the
GPL-ed part that is being used? That way people could
use free software, add significant work using a propietary
license and actually make money if they can find buyers;
but their users would have access to all files that contain
(bits of originally) GPL-ed code and could decide to write
the missing (propietrary) parts themselfs OR buy the product.

Seems fair enough to me.

14 Aug 2000 07:05 Avatar denisoliver

Right decision
I've been working with KDE for a few years and turned over to GNOME a year ago. I admire the work the KDE-guys have done, but I admit to the point that KDE, as long as it is not really free, is an invitation to commercialise software-projects after having them tested for a while as free ( see kISDN ). This is dangerous for Linux. By side, IMHO the KDE-Desktop is much to full and loud. I prefer more elegant and clear GUI's as Wmaker in general.

23 Jun 2000 13:06 Avatar xyzzyon

Re: KDE and Debian Again
Interesting quote from the GNU licenses page:
"However, if you have written a program that uses Qt, and you want to release your program under the GNU GPL, you can easily do that."
Doesn't this end the entire argument?

22 Jun 2000 19:26 Avatar michaelfowler

Re: Debian and KDE, again
XyzzyOn stated:
> So the Debian developers consider the QPL unusable because
> it's incompatible with the GPL, yet GNU states that the Perl
> Artistic License is NOT compatible with the GPL

This is incorrect, as the GNU list of licenses very explicitly states. Perl's Artistic License provides the GPL as an alternative.

Please, in the future, research your material a little better. I think everyone here would appreciate it.


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