Does the GPL need Linux more than Linux needs the GPL?

You seem to think so

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Letters If you're looking for clear-cut heroes and villains in the raging debate about Linux and GPL version 3.0, don't read on. Things get really messy from here on in.

Linux will get along just fine without GPL version 3.0, say many readers, and there's a strong push back against the idea that rejecting GPL 3.0 is any kind of 'sell out'. In fact, this document is loaded with legal barbs to repel all kinds of grievances.

Such as the "Matrix House" described in our last article: A DRM-encumbered booby trap not unlike the malfunctioning inventions which feature so regularly in our Rise Of The Machines™ series.

Don't use the GPL to fight these battles, you reckon.

But as we suggested at the outset this is a very nuanced postbag. First of all, we need to outline the problem. When TiVo used Linux, which is based on GPL version 2.0 code, added a proprietary front-end, and turned it into a DRM device, many people were upset.

Asks Matthew Barratt:

There are any number of well developed OSs that people like TiVo and the like could choose. VxWorks, Symbian would do nicely, QNX, embedded XP (eeeeeek!) even? VxWorks is POSIX compliant, so largely familiar to a Linux developer. TiVo picked Linux because it was free. If they didn't like the look of linux in future, maybe because of GPL 3, they could very easily switch to something like VxWorks and it'd make 50pence difference to the unit cost.

Indeed, wouldn't life have been simpler if TiVo had chosen a non-free embedded OS? But the objection to TiVo is that they were breaking the spirit, if not the letter of the GPL. Software libre advocates can't prevent such appropriations by invoking the Law of Good Taste, but they can prevent misuse under the GPL. So TiVo is seen to be exploiting a loophole in GPL version 2.0, and so GPL 3.0 is designed to stop TiVOs of the future by blocking this loophole.

But that's not our problem, says Matthew, who sees DRM as an unavoidable part of the world:

I get the impression that this is all muddled up with the wider DRM debate. Is GPL 3 is being leveraged by some as a means to overcome DRM (which is here to stay like it or not) mechanisms? If so they are living in cloud coockoo land and it sounds like they are assuming that there's no other choice out there for Tivo et al.

With the scene set, Bill Hufmann gets to the problem with admirable succinctness:

I can sympathize with both sides of this argument, but it does seem to me that GPL 3.0 extends the free (freedom) software concept to cover free (freedom) entertainment content as well. The constituencies of the two concepts overlap considerably but forcing equivalence seems unnecessary and could destroy one or both movements.

As Kym Farnick points out, Linus rejection of GPL 3.0 doesn't imperil Linux, it imperils the GPL 3.0 draft as it's currently drafted.

  1. Torvalds can happily continue using GPL v2 for the Linux Kernel, and there's no reason to go to v3.0, whatever that turns out to be.
  2. Torvalds could (with difficulty) move to another OSS license or even create a new Linux Open License (LOL) ;-) Maybe one similar to the Mozilla license.
  3. Moglen can make parts of the V3 license optional.

Carsten's email here sums up the tone of many defending the GPL 2.0 kernel position.

Linus didn't create Linux as something to fit the (L)GPL. He had already started on the Linux project, *then* decided that he needed a formal license, came across the GPL v2 and decided that that fit his needs. End of story, really.

I can see why the Open Source "advocates" (be they programmers or journalists) would want to use Linux as the vehicle for their moral crusade. It was succesful, and as Torvalds has always tried to stay away from the political discussions, they pretty much had a free run.

Blaming Linus for not carrying *your* banner in your personal fight for "freedom" is insane. Fight it yourself if you must, but don't start dragging someone into it who just wants time to plug away at his OS.

Ah, but if it was simply a case of few journalists or detached advocates berating Torvalds for rejecting some fancy new license, then it wouldn't merit many column inches. But the license he's being urged to adopt is the officially designated successor to the one he's already using.

Leaving us with the question, does the GPL need Torvalds more than Torvalds needs the GPL?

And if that isn't enough indigestible thoughts before breakfast - how about this thought from Justin Davidow:

Linux is not a magical moral crusade that people undertake to compete with Bill, nor is it a "free" alternative.

Er. It isn't?

"'Linux' is only a name," writes Paul Meekin hopefully, carrying on the spirit. He continues:

It is like the value of a company in the stock market in that it only has meaning while everyone believes in it. If enough people decide they don't like Linus's ethical rule, a spin-off would soon occur which would be subject to the new rule. The old GPL ensures that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle for good.

But no Register mailbag would be complete without a few unexpected Scuds making their way across the ether and exploding in a zone heavily defended by posturing and hypocrisy. We'll end with these three gems.

Thanks for the Article. What amuses me most is your quote from Linus:

" ... 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 when has he felt like that. Last time I remembered, the kernel people (including Linus) were real big on being the superior software Gods. Isn't that why we can't have binary modules loaded into the kernel to support hardware? One recent example would be the following:


And that whole fiasco. Anyways, just amusing to see Linus flip flopping around and sticking to what is convienent to him. I am a big fan of Linux/OpenSource and use it extensively for work and play, but I wish some of the public figures would get a clue and get off their high horses some time.

[name with held by request]

Kevin Hall does a great job of stripping away the posturing that goes on in the holy FOSS crusades, here -

You did hit the nail on the head: if OSS isn't about some kind of moral or ethical shift then what is it exactly? I do get the feeling that Linus has identified that far from being a moral crusade in the tradition of the enlightenment, a crusade set around reason, logic and compromise, the whole OSS/Linux push has been propagated with the kind of zealously that would put the Spanish Inquisition to shame.

The thing is, apart from the obvious weaknesses about making a lot of ballyhoo about a clanking Unix clone, it's a complete work of hypocrisy. Lots of huge corporations pour fortunes into OSS development like Oracle and HP into software like Apache and Linux. They get their development done at bargain basement prices and OSS gets a fat subsidy from select sugar daddies. Together your moral foundations are being built on quicksand. You can't fight your number one enemy (Microsoft as has been clearly stated) without making its competitors fatter in the process.

There's also two bigger problems: first no one ever elected Linus to be in charge of Linux and if it is really "free" then he shouldn't have any casting vote over it or own any of the trademarks. The weaknesses (and conversely its strengths) of Linux will stand or fall by its creator who probably shouldn't be able to operate with impunity. I think I also get a sense of impending failure: as Linux matures there is really a creeping sense of failure around the project. It hasn't blew Windows off the desktop, has made modest gains into servers and commercially has only really blossomed where cheapest is key. Much of its surrounding software is either poor quality, arcane in design and administration, outdated or a weak imitation of something commercial.

And the last word goes to reader Chad Walstrom, who's bemused by all the talk of 'moral responsibility' from the FOSS camp:

You left out the part that he believes developers have a moral obligation to make sure the software works, which would fit beautifully with your house analogy.


So the issue seems straightforward. There are several ways of ensuring DRM is not part of our future: it can be legislated out of existence, or compensation frameworks can (and surely will) be agreed which make it unnecessary. Don't, say the Torvalds camp, bork our favorite license. ®

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