A while ago, I installed Emacs from the Ubuntu repositories, and have been using it occasionally. Recently, just for fun, I installed vrms, a tool designed to detect non-free software according to the Debian definitions. My system was relatively clean, with only a few packages flagged.

However, the package emacs24-common-non-dfsg was among them. This seems a bit odd. As far as I know, Emacs was written by RMS himself, so this confuses me.

Are there indeed ethical issues connected to this package? If so, what are the recommended free replacements?

In the case there is no reason for this package to be flagged, what are possible causes for the flag?

1 Answer 1


You can find information about this package on the Debian webpage, which includes this:

This package contains the architecture independent infrastructure that is not compliant with the Debian Free Software Guidelines. In particular, this includes some of the GNU Emacs info pages, as they are covered under the GFDL, and specify invariant sections.

That is followed by a link to a document which discusses why the GFDL is not compliant with Debian's Free Software Guidelines. General Resolution: Why the GNU Free Documentation License is not suitable for Debian main.

The summary from that second page is:

The GFDL conflicts with traditional requirements for free software in a variety of ways, some of which are expanded upon below. As a copyleft license, one of the consequences of this is that it is not possible to include content from a document directly into free software under the GFDL.

but you should read the whole thing.

By the way, I can confirm that the above is an issue. I had to rewrite the Magit v2 manual from scratch because I wanted to be able to freely copy between the manual and doc-strings in the source code, but that would have violated the GFDL used for the Magit v1 manual. This has caused my a lot of unnecessary work and I suggest you don't use GFDL for your own documentation.

  • So the issue is not about the license being free or not, but rather about compatibility with other free software licenses, and it is restricted in a way that makes it impractical to use. I suppose it is OK to keep the package then. May 23, 2016 at 11:48
  • 2
    Well, according to Debian's definition it is not free. But they are being more catholic than the Pope here, so yes, in my opinion it is okay to use the documentation. But I do agree with the Debian folks: this license should be avoided. It causes harm for those it is supposed to protect: the authors and users of free software and documentation.
    – tarsius
    May 23, 2016 at 11:50

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