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<nettime> Free Software and Free Manuals (Stallman)


Free Software and Free Manuals

by Richard Stallman

The biggest deficiency in free operating
systems is not in the software--it is
the lack of good free manuals that we
can include in these systems. Many of
our most important programs do not come
with full manuals. Documentation is an
essential part of any software package;
when an important free software package
does not come with a free manual, that
is a major gap. We have many such gaps

Once upon a time, many years ago, I
thought I would learn Perl. I got a copy
of a free manual, but I found it hard to
read. When I asked Perl users about
alternatives, they told me that there
were better introductory manuals--but
those were not free.

Why was this? The authors of the good
manuals had written them for O'Reilly
Associates, which published them with
restrictive terms--no copying, no
modification, source files not
available--which exclude them from the
free software community.

That wasn't the first time this sort of
thing has happened, and (to our
community's great loss) it was far from
the last. Proprietary manual publishers
have enticed a great many authors to
restrict their manuals since then. Many
times I have heard a GNU user eagerly
tell me about a manual that he is
writing, with which he expects to help
the GNU project--and then had my hopes
dashed, as he proceeded to explain that
he had signed a contract with a
publisher that would restrict it so that
we cannot use it.

Given that writing good English is a
rare skill among programmers, we can ill
afford to lose manuals this way.

Free documentation, like free software,
is a matter of freedom, not price. The
problem with these manuals was not that
O'Reilly Associates charged a price for
printed copies--that in itself is fine.
(The Free Software Foundation sells
printed copies of free GNU manuals,
too.) But GNU manuals are available in
source code form, while these manuals
are available only on paper. GNU manuals
come with permission to copy and modify;
the Perl manuals do not. These
restrictions are the problems.

The criterion for a free manual is
pretty much the same as for free
software: it is a matter of giving all
users certain freedoms. Redistribution
(including commercial redistribution)
must be permitted, so that the manual
can accompany every copy of the program,
on-line or on paper. Permission for
modification is crucial too.

As a general rule, I don't believe that
it is essential for people to have
permission to modify all sorts of
articles and books. The issues for
writings are not necessarily the same as
those for software. For example, I don't
think you or I are obliged to give
permission to modify articles like this
one, which describe our actions and our

But there is a particular reason why the
freedom to modify is crucial for
documentation for free software. When
people exercise their right to modify
the software, and add or change its
features, if they are conscientious they
will change the manual too--so they can
provide accurate and usable
documentation with the modified program.
A manual which forbids programmers to be
conscientious and finish the job, or
more precisely requires them to write a
new manual from scratch if they change
the program, does not fill our
community's needs.

While a blanket prohibition on
modification is unacceptable, some kinds
of limits on the method of modification
pose no problem. For example,
requirements to preserve the original
author's copyright notice, the
distribution terms, or the list of
authors, are ok. It is also no problem
to require modified versions to include
notice that they were modified, even to
have entire sections that may not be
deleted or changed, as long as these
sections deal with nontechnical topics.
(Some GNU manuals have them.)

These kinds of restrictions are not a
problem because, as a practical matter,
they don't stop the conscientious
programmer from adapting the manual to
fit the modified program. In other
words, they don't block the free
software community from doing its thing
with the program and the manual

However, it must be possible to modify
all the technical content of the manual;
otherwise, the restrictions do block the
community, the manual is not free, and
so we need another manual.

Unfortunately, it is often hard to find
someone to write another manual when a
proprietary manual exists. The obstacle
is that many users think that a
proprietary manual is good enough--so
they don't see the need to write a free
manual. They do not see that the free
operating system has a gap that needs

Why do users think that proprietary
manuals are good enough? Some have not
considered the issue. I hope this
article will do something to change

Other users consider proprietary manuals
acceptable for the same reason so many
people consider proprietary software
acceptable: they judge in purely
practical terms, not using freedom as a
criterion. These people are entitled to
their opinions, but since those opinions
spring from values which do not include
freedom, they are no guide for those of
us who do value freedom.

Please spread the word about this issue.
We continue to lose manuals to
proprietary publishing. If we spread the
word that proprietary manuals are not
sufficient, perhaps the next person who
wants to help GNU by writing
documentation will realize, before it is
too late, that he must above all make it

We can also encourage commercial
publishers to sell free, copylefted
manuals instead of proprietary ones. One
way you can help this is to check the
distribution terms of a manual before
you buy it, and prefer copylefted
manuals to non-copylefted ones.

Please send FSF & GNU inquiries &
questions to gnu@gnu.org. There are also
other ways to contact the FSF.

Copyright (C) 1997 Free Software
Foundation, Inc., 59 Temple Place -
Suite 330, Boston, MA 02111, USA

Verbatim copying and distribution is
permitted in any medium, provided this
notice is preserved.

Updated: 21 Jul 1998 devnull
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