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I'm building a deb file to deploy to a machine that may have a dependency satisfied by a non-deb deployment. I want to have my package depend on the existence of a file rather than a specific (or virtual) package, so that if the file was deployed using a method other than apt-get, the package can still be installed.

I know that RPM has a mechanism for that, but I couldn't figure out how to do this with dpkg.

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No, there is no such mechanism for Debian packages. Users of Debian-based systems have to work around this, there's nothing the package maintainer can do. See How to fake a package version installed? - also checkinstall can be used by the user to fill the package database.

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