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Community: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing? (or, Does Intention Matter?)

Sep 21, 2000, 15:40 (18 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Claude Rubinson)

By Claude Rubinson

With dismay, I read Dennis Powell's recent interview with Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman of Helix Code. Although I have closely followed the continuing development of GNOME, I have not paid much attention to Helix Code, assuming that it was just some private company attempting the dubious proposition of making a profit off of free software. So it was quite a shock to discover that the lead developer of GNOME, de Icaza, also has a vested interest in the success of Helix Code.

The decision by Trolltech to license Qt/Free under the GPL was a significant victory for the free software movement. Neither Trolltech nor the KDE developers have ever been particularly supportive of the free software movement. Trolltech's interest in Qt/Free is simply the potential revenue derived from purchases of their commercial implementations of Qt. And the KDE developers have never hidden that they are not concerned with licensing issues, but simply desire "to make KDE the best desktop and application development platform in existence". Yet, Trolltech and the KDE developers found that they had no reasonable course but to GPL the Qt/Free library. GPL'ed code is so pervasive throughout GNU/Linux distributions that a project as massive as KDE could not survive without a GPL-compatible foundation of code.

The licensing of Qt/Free under the GPL, then, was a victory for the free software movement not because Trolltech and the KDE developers realized the righteousness of free software, but because they discovered that they could not survive in a world of free software without, themselves, becoming free software. There are no illusions as to the intentions that led to the decision to GPL Qt/Free; not to GPL would risk the chances of a successful adoption of the soon-to-be-released KDE 2.0. But their intentions do not matter; all that matters is the value of the code that has been released to the free software community.

Or does intention matter?

Not only is GNOME free software, but it is GNU software. GNU is built upon a moral foundation, articulated by the Free Software Foundation, that holds that software should be given to the software community free of any legal obligation or restriction. Moreover, the FSF promotes a "spirit" of free software that goes beyond the letter of its license -- that software should not only be given to the community freely, but also promote cooperation among developers in pursuit of the common good. KDE is free software, but it was not developed in the spirit of free software. Rather, the KDE developers intended their product to dominate the desktop and Trolltech intended to reap the rewards of that monopoly. The FSF, however, has always stood for developing software that fills -- rather than creates -- a need. The development of GNOME, itself, commenced with a recognition of the need to develop a free alternative to non-free desktop environments.

Like Trolltech, Helix Code is a for-profit company. As a for-profit company, Helix Code is obligated to generate revenue, minimize expenses, and attempt to make a profit. Such obligations are not compatible with the spirit of free software. On the contrary, the spirit of free software demands that the developer consider the needs of the community rather than the particular interest of any individual or organization. Furthermore, it is a necessary right that the developer be permitted to pursue that goal freely, without restriction or obligation.

Yet the employees of Helix Code have no such right. They are obligated by their employment contracts to develop Helix GNOME in accordance with the needs and interests of the company. Consequently, although Helix GNOME is free software, like KDE, it is not developed in the spirit of free software.

But Helix GNOME is product distinct from that of GNOME. So what's the problem?

The problem is de Icaza. His obligations to produce a profit-making product for Helix Code are incompatible with his position as lead developer of GNOME, a GNU project. The development and direction of GNOME will be influenced by the need of Helix Code to make a profit. de Icaza's position with Helix Code obligates him to consider the needs of Helix Code when developing GNOME.

Consequently, GNOME, while free software, is no longer being developed in the spirit of free software. The interests of GNOME's lead developer violates that spirit.

What should be done?

I would ask that the Board of the FSF carefully consider the position of GNOME in relation to GNU. What does it mean to be GNU software? Is it enough to simply comply with the FSF's definition of free software? Or should GNU software be held to a higher standard, one that is consistent with the spirit of free software? If the latter, the relationship between GNOME, Helix GNOME, Helix Code, and de Icaza must be carefully scrutinized.

© 2000 Claude Rubinson
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted in any medium provided this notice and the copyright notice are preserved.

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