Md at

tales of a debian maintainer

On firmwares

Ian Murdock wrote a few days ago: The founding goal of Debian was to create a better distribution that could help bring free software to the world.

Refusing to distribute binary firmwares does not help free software. You may choose between getting the firmware with your hardware on a flash EPROM chip or having your driver load it, but at the end of the day you will still use some software whose source code is not available. If removing binary firmwares from debian makes using free software harder for our user then it harms the free software cause.

As we already know, even if obtaining the source of these firmwares were possibile, in most cases this would not help us because we would not know how the hardware works or because it would not be possible to build the firmware without a proprietary toolchain.

Anyway, the major effect that the everything is software policy will have is to make non-free more important, even essential for many of our users. Will this help the cause of free software? I can't see how it could.

We created non-free because we recognize that some of our users need non-free software, but our goal should be to make it not relevant anymore by writing free alternatives to this proprietary software, not to force users to start using it if they want to use their hardware.

I do not accept the argument suggesting that hardware without flash EPROM is bad or has a lower quality. Having one when it's not actually needed (i.e. when the device is used at boot time, before the OS is loaded) makes the hardware more expensive to build and more complex to administrate, requiring a flashing utility (when was the last time a vendor provided one for Linux?) and safeguards for the eventuality that the flash content is damaged.

In an ideal world, we would not have binary-only firmwares (and we would have open hardware too), but as we live in a different kind of world we probably need to make some compromises with reality. As the discussion about the latest GR shows, most developers consider acceptable deferring some of the Social Contract commitments because of pratical issues.

For these reasons, I believe we should seriously consider a temporary exception allow distributing binary firmware files in Debian until the hardware market will have changed enough to make pratical requiring for them the same freedoms we require for software running on the host CPU.


This is the blog of Marco d'Itri.

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