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If Linus snubs new GPL, is that it for 'open source'?

Torvalds doesn't care. Trouble looms...

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Analysis Linus Torvalds doesn't want to change the Linux kernel's software license, and he said so again last week. For good measure this time, he threw in some inflammatory remarks.

"I literally feel," wrote Torvalds, "that we do not, as software developers, have the moral right to enforce our rules on hardware manufacturers. We are not crusaders, trying to force people to bow to our superior God."

Since the crusades were a foreign adventure responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands, that's not the most diplomatic response, and FSF counsel Eben Moglen refused to be drawn into retaliation when we contacted him for comment.

Moglen did say that as part of the lengthy, worldwide consultation process for GPL v3.0 he'd be issuing further clarification on the two most controversial parts of the new license, Sections three and seven. We'll examine the particulars in a moment.

But stressing that he was speaking in general terms, Moglen told us this -

"Freedom is not about what works well. It's about what defends freedom when it can be given an intellectually rigorous and internally rigorous conception. We want to have a conversation on whether we are drafting it in a way to achieve this," he said.

"The question presented by DRM is not whether it can have good purposes, or whether it serves socially useful ends sometimes. It's whether user disempowerment - at a time when technology is moving to embrace the users' whole life - is a risk we can run to gain some particular benefit."

Don't let the means dictate the ends, he seems to be saying.

Torvalds remarks have uncomfortable echoes of last year's BitKeeper episode, when Torvalds dimissed the concerns of his kernel developers and mocked the ethical dimension of software development.

But if Linux isn't about ethics, then what is its purpose? And if open source simply means 'free' (as in beer) code at the end of the day, and it's not about changing the world, then why is it different to a BSD?

Let's examine how we got here.

How GPL got Linux out of the lab

The Linux kernel which Torvalds controls (Torvalds also owns the Linux trademark) is the best known and most popular piece of software libre in the world, and owes its popularity and respect in no small part to the freedoms guaranteed by the FSF General Public License. This license gives the recipient the right to modify and distribute the code, but more importantly, ensures a downstream recipient fulfills the same obligations.

The FSF doesn't update this GPL very often. It last did so with version 2.0 in 1991, with a minor addendum (the LGPL) appearing a few years later, and version 3.0 has been racing our way with all the speed of a continental plate stuck in a tectonic traffic jam for several years now. Its ratification looks some way away too. As it turns out, this is quite deliberate, as Linux is big business now, and the FSF is engaging on a massive consensus building project to make sure everyone's on board.

The FSF also has an additional issue to deal with that it didn't have in 1991, which is that the words "free" and "open" are today often used as broad-brush term, with the implication that they're synonymous and interchangeable. They're not, but when Linux looked set to conquer all before it, and was finding its way into computer systems ranging from phones to mainframes, and world domination was only a matter of time, the difference could be blamed on semantic nit-picking. Didn't open and freedom just mean the same thing?

Something else happened, too. The phrase "open source" became an invitation for any opportunistic wanker to hitch a free ride, hoping some of this magic would rub off, and turn into a lucrative pay day.

We saw the influential, Blair-ite think tank Demos team up with Douglas Rushkoff to suggest "open source democracy", which amounted to little more than a catchphrase. A rag bag, free-for-all trivia website morphed into "Wikipedia", which laid claim to be the world's greatest encyclopedia (that's turning out to be exactly what you'd expect it to be). Some sophists claim to have created "open source" cookies - the baked, not coded kind. And even the GPL has been disastrously misapplied, to things that can be, but primarily don't need to be "modified" to be successful, such as works of art.

But while all this opportunism and sloppy thinking took place in public, the gears were slowing. Something was halting the momentum of this great project.

Microsoft began to apply its deep pockets to buy off litigious rivals. And nervous corporate and public sector customers, who'd been looking at Linux with great interest, began to waver. Maybe they got nervous about the fall-out from the SCO suit. Maybe Linux advocates failed to prove the total cost of ownership case, which had looked a slam dunk at one time. Maybe the notorious factionalism of the technical community (eg GNOME vs KDE) proved to be a turn off. Maybe Linux, and software libre, failed to generate big ideas of its own. Big ideas, even if they're nebulous and entirely without substance - and Web 2.0 is a great example of a load of nothing going nowhere, as you so eloquently point out - seem to be necessary to attract the glaze-eyed attention of the corporate media, if only for a few weeks. Or maybe too many nutballs climbed on board, hoping to catch a bit of the "New Open Thing".

We don't know, but in the end it wasn't Microsoft that fomented today's dispute about GPL 3.0, but of all things, a small consumer electronics company.

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