Originally Published: Wednesday, 22 August 2001 Author: John Stanforth
Published to: opinion_articles/opinion Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Fight the GNU/Future

John Stanforth writes that "the two ideologies are not interchangeable" when he speaks about the free software and the open source movements. Whatever view you may have about either viewpoint, or even Stanforth's opinions (pro open source) there is no denying the clarity of this well written piece. If you want to understand the difference between FSF and open source, this is a great article to start with.

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John Stanforth, Chief Evangelist, Enabled Paradigm
(August 17, 2001)

As I stumbled blurry-eyed out of bed today and hit Slashdot, as I do each morning trying to entice my brain to fully wake up, I found myself reading an interview with FSF Vice President Bradley M. Kuhn. The FSF, as most technical people know, is the Free Software Foundation headed by the almost-mythical Richard M. Stallman (RMS), who started the project in 1984 to create viable software alternatives not enslaved to corporate proprietary licenses. His GNU software has gained widespread usage, if not significant media attention, as a part of the operating system on which the Linux kernel created by Linus Torvalds runs. Together, this software, packaged in various configurations by Linux distribution maintainers such as Redhat or Debian, with the Linux kernel on top, comprise the operating system known to the non-technical world simply as Linux.

In the Open Source world, however, a persistent debate rages on, largely below the threshold of corporate media attention, about the very name of the operating system itself. Is it Linux, as most people commonly refer to it? Or GNU/Linux, as RMS & Friends insist? (I vaguely remember a Salon.com article a few years ago noting that RMS actually interrupted reporters during press conferences, telling them that if they didn't refer to it as GNU/Linux, he wouldn't answer their questions.) Many people see the logic of "GNU/Linux" as indicating that the operating system is more than the work of just one guy, but there are bigger issues at stake here which many well-meaning people in the community seem to overlook.

Interestingly enough, Bradley Kuhn's interview was noteworthy, not for its standard regurgitation of the official party line, as it were, but instead, for how lucidly and succinctly he presented an extreme position on a very controversial topic. Even more interesting was the fact that he was presenting this view to the Slashdot readership, a group that would be as affected by some of the FSF's future objectives as the major corporations that serve as more obvious targets.

In addition to answering more general and innocuous questions (his middle name is Michael, for example... *smile*), Bradley presents a clear picture of the long-term goals of the FSF: Software deserves to be Free, and software developers should not have the power to choose more restrictive licenses for their own software. Wow, really? Did I misunderstand this somehow? I might have, except that he continued on to liken developer control of software licensing to slavery in early America. Hmmm. Hard to misunderstand when he goes to the trouble of laying it all out so clearly.

And that's just it. Bradley's answers were very well-written and shouldn't be surprising in the slightest to those well-versed in the FSF philosophy... This is the party line. It has been for some time, and will continue for the foreseeable future. Anyone familiar with RMS and the FSF understands that they're in no danger of changing their perspectives anytime soon. *smile* Yet, many people seemed surprised to see such an extreme viewpoint from the FSF, while others continually down-play the FSF "extremism" by citing instead more moderate views elegantly presented by the Open Source equivalent of the SuperFriends... Eric S. Raymond (ESR), Bruce Perens (of Debian and now HP), Tim O'Reilly, and of course, the Open Source poster-boy himself, Linus Torvalds. When these guys find a soapbox, there's rarely any confusion-- They're fighting for a world where developers are free to create the software they feel passionately about, and a world in which users are free to choose the best software on its merits alone, regardless of whether it was created by a $200 billion corporate monolith or a 15-year-old with less than $200 to his name. They're ultimately fighting for developer freedom, and indirectly, for end-user freedom by giving users the widest possible choice of what software they want to use. They're not forcing anyone to use any software, and not forcing anyone to release any software against their will. But they're certainly not fighting for the freedom of software itself either.

The same people in the Open Source community who make excuses for FSF extremism seem to be missing the simple truth here-- RMS isn't an extreme view in the Open Source movement, but the standard view of a completely different movement altogether. RMS isn't fighting for software developers-- he's fighting for the software itself, and at least from his perspective, for the users who would get complete rights to use and modify any software that exists. Of course, since you can't force companies or people to write software under those terms, it seems inevitable that the FSF policy would actually limit user choice by eliminating commercial software, and by eliminating competition. Still, no one can fault RMS for any confusion-- he has been completely clear (excessively redundant, in fact) about the fact that the Open Source movement is not the same beast as the Free Software movement. I recall a Crystal Space discussion where, in virtually every response to the CS author, RMS reiterates that he doesn't speak for the Open Source movement and that his advice from a Free Software perspective will be very different from that of someone in the Open Source movement. You just can't get any more specific about the topic than that, folks.

Yet, in our haste to find allies in the very real struggle against the ever-more-powerful (and ever-encroaching) Corporate Powers That Be, we in the Open Source movement have taken strange bedfellows with those in the Free Software movement, and we've done so in a way that at times has been rather confusing for the community at large. Sure, the two groups share common software and share powerful common corporate enemies-- those monopolistic corporations that seek to squelch the rights of people everywhere to develop and to use non- commercial software alternatives. The FSF needs Open Source as an ally to defend the GPL against marketing attacks by Microsoft and its puppets, and Open Source clearly needs the long-established GNU software base to continue the spectacular progress that its relatively new projects have enjoyed. But at the end of the day, the harsh reality is that these two clans are working with very different and conflicting objectives, and in time, as these groups mature and gain strength, these differences only become more pronounced.

The FSF Vision: Brave GNU World

As many have noted, the opposite of love is not hate-- it's apathy. Love and hate are essentially two sides of the same coin, both requiring quite a bit of caring as a pre-requisite. Similarly, I would contend, the GNU future painted by the FSF is not truly a world of developer or end-user freedom, but simply the other side of the Corporate Software Monopolies coin. In order to prevent corporations from establishing unfair monopolies at one extreme of the spectrum, we're supposed to believe that restricting all software from being anything BUT Free, at the exact opposite end of the spectrum, is the only viable choice.

That's the part that struck me as I read through Bradley Kuhn's interview this morning, with a vague but bothersome sense of deja vu. Haven't I heard this idea before somewhere? I'm sure I have. Positive, in fact.

A few minutes later, it suddenly clicked as I recalled a section of the Anarchism FAQ that a friend sent me a few weeks ago. The FAQ explains why ownership of private property is bad, and also provides a helpful explanation of the difference between individual possessions (good) and private property (bad). If I own a bicycle, for example, that's an individual possession (good). Since I have a bicycle, I can now get a paper route (also good). But if I rent out my bicycle to someone else to use, I've turned that bicycle into private property (very bad) and I'm exploiting someone else's labor for personal profit. (Apparently U-Haul will be the first company to get axed in the big Anarchist revolution. *smile*) The FAQ also explains how the biggest problem with capitalism is that the owners of property exploit the labor of the working classes, and as a result, continue to make money without actually doing any work.

Whether or not you agree with these views, there's certainly an interesting parallel to the FSF's concept of Free Software. After all, you can write software and even charge money to sell it, but once you do, you give up all rights to control what is done with that software. Why is this? Is the FSF philosophy saying that commercial software licenses create recurring revenue streams allowing software "owners" to profit without additional work? Is that the real problem here? Or is this just the height of political correctness, to its absurdest extreme, in elevating software itself to the level of people? The analogy of slavery would make more sense in that context, as would the view that software deserves to be free and shouldn't be exploited by "its owners," as the FSF website itself refers to developers.

Borrowing an analogy from history (and from examples on the FSF website comparing software control to Soviet control of copy machines), our beloved RMS seems to be pointing out very valid flaws in the Lenins and Stalins of the corporate software world, and instead advocating that we revert back to a czar-- Czar Stallman, that is. *smile* If all software is only GPL'd, both in GPL current form and with future-revision language, he who controls the license controls the world, at least more than anyone else. (I'm sure Loki could make a great "Dune" clone for Linux with this storyline. *laugh*)

Open Source, quite to the contrary, follows a very Lockean Social Contract view, which essentially provides that people should be free to do whatever they want as long as they're not infringing upon the rights of others. In the Open Source universe, you're free to write whatever software you want, and I'm just as free to not use any of it. Open Source fights to keep the market open and competition alive-- a very different goal from killing competition by killing off commercial software. Open Source developers know they can hold their own based on the quality of their work, as long as the 800-pound gorillas of the corporate software world don't resort to unfair tactics to lock Open Source software projects out of the playing field.

In a sense, Open Source is imposing a fairness and competitiveness in the software market in a way which Locke would contend should be the role of the government, if it were actually working properly. Of course, that would require that policymakers in government actually understood software issues, or preferably, found clever experts well-versed in Open Source (like ESR and Bruce Perens) to pinch-hit for them in those cases. I'd like to think that wouldn't be impossible at some point in the near future, but that would require clever leadership from more than a few people in Washington. I'm not holding my breath.

Seeds of Community Civil War?

Already, the conflicting Open Source and Free Software objectives are creating real-world problems, and are confusing some in the Open Source community with the seeming contradictions of the FSF's stance on various issues. "Software licenses shouldn't put restrictions on redistributed works," says the FSF mantra, while the FSF leaders still try to push the GNU/Linux name upon anyone who will listen. Doesn't that seem philosophically contradictory? Well, yes, absolutely, if you think this is one big happy Open Source / FSF family working together towards a common goal. But no, not at all, if you understand that Open Source shouldn't get all the credit for software written to further a very different agenda. It actually makes sense that RMS doesn't want Open Source solely furthering its own agenda with software written to further the FSF agenda, given the inherent conflicts in these agendas. I would suggest then that the difference between "Linux" and "GNU/Linux" is a political choice, either supporting Open Source or supporting Free Software. The two ideologies are not interchangeable, and perhaps the two different names can clarify political agendas cleanly while ending the on-going debate once and for all.

In another related area, the developers of many software projects (including Linus) have already begun modifying the wording in their GPL software licenses, limiting clauses which grant RMS future powers through GPL revisions. This is not to suggest that RMS is evil or wrong in any way, but many developers are simply recognizing that their views are not now or perhaps will not always be consistent with those of RMS and the Free Software agenda.

Earlier this week, I also read a note by Ulrich Drepper in the glibc release documentation citing further grievances about attempts by RMS to commandeer the project and impose his own "guidance" upon that group. Ulrich ends with an advice to developers that they not include their software under the GNU umbrella, unless they're prepared to deal with the meddling of RMS that Ulrich insists is inevitable. I haven't heard anything from the RMS side to verify this, but even without knowing the full details, I'm sure there will be many examples in the near future of the on-going confusion and frustration when the community isn't 100% clear that the ultimate vision of the FSF is not an Open Source world, but a Brave GNU World with a very political agenda.

But in our context, Ulrich's point has even more validity. Should those working to further an Open Source movement really put their software under the FSF/GNU umbrella? Doesn't this just set us up for the inevitable conflict of our conflicting agendas? Would it be helpful to define a general Open Source equivalent of the GPL so that Open Source supporters could avoid such future conflicts with a license controlled by a different camp entirely? I'm not suggesting that these two camps cannot work together, and quite to the contrary, there is certainly a great deal of work left to do for which collaboration seems the only viable option. Still, perhaps it's time to mend our fences as well, and to understand our differences clearly so that we can all go forward with realistic expectations and avoid the frustration and conflict that arise from confusion.

At the very least, it's only fair to lay these philosophies on the table for individual developers to make their own choices about the agendas they wish to further. Otherwise, it's all too easy to wake up one day in that Brave GNU World, finding that we've supported an agenda that we didn't really believe in, only because we got so wrapped up in the obvious Cause of opposing the Microsoft Empire at any cost.


[Update - 8/19/2001: *laugh* ESR also wrote a great article Friday discussing issues with the FSF. It's definitely worth reading if you haven't already.]

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