Editor's Note: Freedom
Sep 29, 2006, 22:30 (19 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)
Of Is Choice
By Brian Proffitt
It is no secret that Linus Torvalds and several Linux kernel
developers are less than thrilled with the notion of shifting the
license from GPL 2 to GPL 3 when GPL 3 is completed. The past
week's hubbub is just a spike in the long-standing discussion that
began about two days after the first draft of GPL 3 was released,
when someone asked Torvalds "hey, what do you think about this?"
and he proceeded to state exactly what he thought about it.
I have touched on this topic before, and my conclusion was--and
pretty much still is--that the kernel developers are free to choose
whatever license they think its best. I don't tell doctors how to
perform operations, either. Sure, people are free to try to
convince Torvalds and his team otherwise, and based on his
responses in the Linux kernel mailing list, I think he is trying to
listen to all sides--at least, after his own fashion. From the
outside looking in, he seems sometimes frustrated and sometimes
bemused by the whole thing, but I can tell he's paying attention by
the simple fact that he's been responding to the discussion thread
I wasn't planning on revisiting this topic, but Torvalds' has
one line of argument that I found very interesting: he seems to
believe that the GPL 3 is purely motivated by the political stances
of the Free Software Foundation and its founder Richard Stallman
and that the license change will not bring anything useful to any
project that uses the new version of the GPL. Indeed, in one
message to the list, he advocated that any FSF project shifting to
GPL 3 be forked and relicensed under GPL 2.
What we are seeing here is more than just the ongoing dispute
between Torvalds and Stallman about naming the kernel "GNU/Linux"
or other trivialities. What this is, in a microcosm, is the
essential tension point between the two forces surrounding Linux
today: idealism versus pragmatism.
The pragmatic view holds that Linux is a (darn good) tool and
that it should be used as such and built with the best tools and
resources that can be brought to bear.
This is where Torvalds and his peers live. To them, Linux is the
end result of their craft. They enjoy what they have built. They
are darned proud of it, in fact, and find it far superior to other
technologies out there. And they will use whatever tools they need
to make it better. So, with that in mind, Torvalds had no problem
using BitKeeper as a software repository for the Linux kernel, even
though it was proprietary. Another recent example is Freespire's
determination to put out a distribution with proprietary
applications, so their users are given the right tools for the
right job, in their opinion.
The idealistic view holds that Linux is a (darn good) tool and
that it should be used to further the cause of free software by
being a great example of what free software can do. It should only
be built with the best free tools and resources that can be brought
This, obviously, is where Stallman and the FSF's opinions lie.
For them, Linux is a means to a greater end: the complete freedom
of software to be used by all, for all. I, for one, cannot help but
encourage this goal and I personally admire the dedication of the
FSF and other freedom-oriented notions such as Debian's social
contract. I don't think I could be that strong. In fact, I know I
couldn't, since I don't use only free software tools all the
Imagine my chagrin when I found out Firefox didn't fit Debian's
definition of free. Here, I had thought, I was promoting the cause
of freedom by using Firefox exclusively. Not so, it seems. But do I
give up my favorite browser because it doesn't agree with Debian's
social contract? No--any more so than I don't abide by the laws of
the United Kingdom while I live and work in Indiana.
The United Kingdom is one nation among many that I would
classify as free. But while many of their laws are similar to mine
here in the US, there are a few differences, some of which I like
and some of which I don't. I am positive that there are many in the
UK who feel the same way about my country's laws.
This may not be the best example, since not very many of the
world's population has the wherewithal or the freedom to pick up
and move to a country that has laws they like more than their own.
A better one, at least for citizens here, would be to highlight the
differences between US states. Nevada, for instance, is a state
with far different gambling laws than Indiana. I choose not to
gamble, so I am more than content to live in Indiana. But I can
respect the Nevada lawmakers' decisions to keep gambling such a
strong industry in their state.
Back to this particular debate, it seems that the pragmatists
are on the defensive, fending off calls to relicense the Linux
kernel under GPL 3 someday. The idealists are accusing them of
holding back freedom for the sake of convenience. And while I can
respect their point of view, it is here I must disagree with
Freedom is a tricky concept to define, because no one is truly
Free. We are all Bound: by the laws of an entropic universe, by the
laws of Whomever we may believe in, by our own personal moral code.
We are all restricted by these frameworks, and many others, on a
daily basis. I am free to disagree with my neighbor about how he
keeps his home; I am certainly not free to kill him about it.
For the FSF to try to apply total freedom to software
development is impossible, because to do so would accomplish the
very opposite of freedom: they would ignore the choices of others
to keep their creations less than totally free. They would deny
freedom of choice.
It could be argued that sometimes you have to force people to
try something because they just don't know any better. To help
them, then, you may have to hurt them a little first. Do I have to
even have to bother pointing out the terrible examples in history
where this line of reasoning has been tried?
Let's be clear: the world's not going to end because of the
license decision made for the Linux kernel. The cause of freedom is
not going to grind to a screeching halt. If anything, maybe those
who promote freedom so strongly will learn how to respect the
choices of others. And the pragmatists who just want to build their
tools will be reminded of how much their tools can represent.
It's their choice.