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Editor's Note: God's Laundry Day

Dec 15, 2006, 23:30 (18 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

It reminded me of a summer squall--a nice, humid day suddenly replaced by black skies, blowing wind, and stinging rain, pummeling the ground by way of what my departed grandmother used to call "God's Laundry Day."

The discussion that broke out on the Linux kernel mailing list this week was just like a squall: a quiet technical discussion that suddenly grew into a deep conversation about the nature of the Linux kernel itself. Would the finest example of GPL software continue to allow proprietary software to be encoded within? The initial answer seemed to be yes.

Eventually, Linus Torvalds weighed in on the matter and in his blunt statements made everyone stop and think. Perhaps, was the conclusion reached, it is not a good idea to make a political stance when you are trying to get a good piece of software out the door. For the most part, the kernel developers seemed to agree with Torvalds, or at least agreed to let the matter lie, and the drive towards kernel 2.6.20 slowly started up again.

But the issue of whether proprietary device modules belong in the kernel is still unresolved. And it may be more complicated than just a group of freedom-lover wanting free software for its own sake.

An aside, if I may, before I continue: there are several pundits on the Internet who are mocking this discussion as just another way Linux developers are cutting their noses off to spite their faces. Look at the idealists, they laugh, they'll never learn to what it takes to sell more software. To those people, I would rejoin a heartfelt "kiss off." However this discussion turns out, at least the discussion is being held in the open, instead of inside an autocratic corporation where ideas are couched in market-speak within memos and e-mails that never see the light of day... unless they're subpoenaed.

Back to the kernel. It dawned on me that proprietary modules were more than just an anathema to some kernel developers when I read the comments of Greg Kroah-Hartman, when he withdrew the patch that would warn everyone about no proprietary modules starting in January 2008:

"It's just that I'm so damn tired of this whole thing. I'm tired of people thinking they have a right to violate my copyright all the time. I'm tired of people and companies somehow treating our license in ways that are blatantly wrong and feeling fine about it. Because we are a loose band of a lot of individuals, and not a company or legal entity, it seems to give companies the chutzpah to feel that they can get away with violating our license.

"So when someone like Andrew gives me the opportunity to put a stop to all of the crap that I have to put up with each and every day with a tiny two-line patch, I jumped in and took it," Kroah-Hartman wrote.

That doesn't sound like someone waving the patriotic flag to me. It sounds like someone who's ticked off watching the work he truly cares about get pilfered by vendors when they take his kernel code, weave it into a device driver, then plug that driver as a proprietary module back into the kernel.

Kroah-Hartman continues:

"And yes, it is crap that I deal with every day due to the lovely gray area that is Linux kernel module licensing these days. I have customers that demand we support them despite them mixing three and more different closed source kernel modules at once and getting upset that I have no way to help them out. I have loony video tweakers that hand edit kernel oopses to try to hide the fact that they are using a binary module bigger than the sum of the whole kernel and demand that our group fix their suspend/resume issue for them. I see executives who say one thing to the community and then turn around and overrule them just because someone made a horrible purchasing decision on the brand of laptop WiFi card that they purchased. I see lawyers who have their hands tied by attorney-client rules and can not speak out in public for how they really feel about licenses and how to interpret them.

"And in the midst of all of that are the poor users who have no idea who to listen to. They don't know what is going on, they "just want to use their hardware" and don't give a damn about anyone's license. And then there's the distros out there that listen to those users and give them the working distro as they see a market for it, and again, as a company, justify to themselves that it must be okay to violate those kernel developers rights because no one seems to be stopping them so far," he writes.

Right now, it's hard to argue with Torvalds; the Linux kernel is not the place to make a political stand. But the current system also seems to be causing a great deal of stress on kernel developers who are trying to create something good and are unhappy with how their works are used.

It seems to me that something is really wrong here, and I think we should risk cubbyholing it into a freedom vs. proprietary argument. That's a symptom of a larger problem. There are too many voices and too many goals in the Linux community for everyone to be happy. That will always be true, since you can't please everybody. But without an overall goal, without some sort of plan, I think it will soon be impossible to please anybody.

I would maintain that there should be a centralized, vendor-neutral body that could manage and focus the direction of the community at large. If there is a need to eliminate non-GPL modules from the kernel, let such a body help the developers figure out how to do it without alienating every hardware or software vendor with an interest in Linux. Let there be a single touch point for software vendors to port their apps to Linux.

In the past, I would assert the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) would have filled this role. But they have been self-diminished, indicating that the time has come for corporations to step into the role of funding and guiding Linux.

This, I think, was a premature move--if that is indeed the reason for OSDL's workforce reduction. We need a stronger OSDL--or a better centralized body altogether--to help developers and users alike solve the big problems facing Linux. Discussions will still be open, but the goals will be more focused.

Or the storms will just keep on coming.