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Editor's Note: Freedom Of Is Choice

Sep 29, 2006, 22:30 (19 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

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 all week.

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 to bear.

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 time.

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 them.

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.