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Editor's Note: Who's Driving That Bus?

Oct 13, 2006, 22:30 (25 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

It's Friday the 13th, and for some of us in the Western world it's a day where we walk a little more carefully, avoiding ladders and black cats... and maybe we handle mirrors just a little more cautiously.

Of course, you're reading the work of a guy that still tosses spilled salt over his shoulder. I have a firm belief in the scientific nature of the universe, but I also have more than a little suspicion that there are things out there that we know nothing about. To think otherwise would be arrogant, no matter what you believe. Perhaps a superstitious nature is a bit quirky, but it gets me through the day.

I enjoy delving into these mysteries of the universe around us. To stimulate my lofty thought processes, I thought I'd try to tackle another mystery of the universe: why the mainstream media is so insistent in creating a crisis around the licensing debate going on in the open source community.

The most prominent example of this is the GPL 2 vs. 3 debate, which seems to have some people convinced that it's the End of Linux kernel as We Know It. I have touched on this discussion a few times before, but I guess it's time to break it down for the terminally challenged: GPL 3 is a license which people will or will not use for their software projects. And--here's the important point, kids--license participation is voluntary. Can you say that with me? Vol...un..tar...eee. I knew you could.

Condescending? Trust me, far less so than the horrible mishmash of facts, speculation, and outright distortions being peddled as journalism over at Forbes this month. In the October 28 issue, our old friend Daniel Lyons puts forth--with a straight face--the notion that Richard Stallman's promotion of the GPL 3 is akin to a suicide bomber who's ultimate task will be to destroy the Linux kernel.

You are more than free to read the article and sidebars yourself ("Toppling Linux"). I didn't link to it from the LT front page because it requires free registration and I didn't want to subject readers en masse to that kind of hurdle for such a completely wrong-headed piece. I like to link to points that run counter to the majority of the open source community, to present a balanced view of how everyone sees OSS and Linux. But this was just plain silly.

Here's a paragraph that will pretty much highlight most of the errors in Lyon's line of thought:

"Now Stallman is waging a new crusade that could end up toppling the revolution he helped create. He aims to impose new restrictions on IBM and any other tech firm that distributes software using even a single line of Linux code. They would be forbidden from using Linux software to block users from infringing on copyright and intellectual-property rights ('digital rights management'); and they would be barred from suing over alleged patent infringements related to Linux."

The article then goes on to paint a doomsday scenario about how there will be an older version and a newer version of Linux floating around, and how such a division will split and ultimately weaken the Linux operating system. Eventually Lyons does get around to mentioning that it's really a difference in licenses and not an actual fork, but even after indicating that, he acts like the effects would be the same.

The reality is that when GPL 3 is finally finished, no such thing will happen. Because choosing a license for a project is not up to anyone except the authors of that project. Despite what Lyons and some of his colleagues are trying to scare people into believing, if I have a GPL 2-licensed application no one can hold a gun to my head and make me switch to GPL 3. It doesn't work like that, and anyone with half a brain can figure that out.

Don't just believe me, let's hear it from the man himself. In a September 22, 2005 interview with ONLamp's Federico Biancuzzi, Stallman was asked this question: "What would you do if Linus chose to keep the kernel under GPL v2.0? Would you promote a fork led by someone else under GPL v3?"

Did RMS advocate the hostile takeover of That Which is Linux, thus announcing his evil nefarious plan? Hardly. I thought his response was pretty realistic: "Only the developers of Linux can decide what to do about licensing of Linux. I hope they'll decide to convert back to 'GPL version 2 or later' and subsequently upgrade to GPL version 3, but it's up to them. There's nothing in the matter for me to do."

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, despite his constant portrayal as a radical activist out to destroy the corporate world, RMS was saying the rational, sane thing nearly a year ago. Perhaps Lyons should have read this interview--but then, it would have prevented Lyons from getting his cover story this month.

Make no mistake: the existence of GPL 3 will make things more interesting for the free and open source software communities. I am not trying to sweep these issues under the rug. There have been concerns about incompatibilities between the two versions of this license. The very next question in the ONLamp piece pretty much sums it up: "Maybe you could talk about the common question that people have: a project under GPL that receives a patch under GPL 3. What happens?"

"If the project's current code permits use under 'GPL version 2 or later,' they can integrate that patch. However, the files where they have merged in the patch will have to say 'GPL version 3 or later,'" Stallman replied.

"They also have the option of not using that patch, or asking the contributor to give permission for its use under 'GPL version 2 or later,'" he added.

That's not the end of the world; it's a pain in the butt.

Patches coming into the Linux kernel, for instance, would have to be accepted under "GPL version 2 or later," or they don't get in. If an individual patch developer raised a big enough stink about it, it's possible their work would have to be forked and relicensed under something compatible with GPL 2. Not fun, but certainly not insurmountable.

Is it possible a body of developers could fork the Linux kernel to a GPL 3 version? Yes, it is possible, which relegates Lyon's article from outright fiction to very unlikely scenario.

Sure, you could fork Linux and relicense it. Heck, for that matter, I could. I call could call it Brinux--er, sorry, GNU/Brinux. But who in their right mind would use it? My mom maybe, but I don't think she likes me that much.

Let's really think this through: what if a very noteworthy group of people forked the Linux kernel and relicensed it? Even if that development team was very respected, I have a very hard time imagining such a project taking off, for two simple reasons.

First, it is very unlikely that any commercial Linux distribution would use such a fork, unless they really liked the GPL 3. To be honest, I don't know which company would, since the DRM and patent restriction clauses tend to give corporate-types the heebie jeebies.

Without direct corporate support and distribution, a GPL 3-Linux kernel/fork would have a very low install base. Because, like it or not, much of the major exposure that the Linux kernel gets now is because of its inclusion into corporate-sponsored distributions.

But even if there were an entity that just loved GPL 3, I don't think they would seriously adopt it, because it would mean cutting themselves off from something really important: the talent and ingenuity that created Linux in the first place.

That's the second thing preventing a successful kernel/license fork: one that curiously doesn't get mentioned in these abstract licensing discussions. Linus Torvalds, Alan Cox, Andrew Morton, Marcelo Tosatti, and all the rest of the talented kernel developers are Linux. Sure, we all like to say that if Linus were hit by a bus tomorrow, Linux would go on, because that's the beauty of open source software. And it's absolutely true.

Here's what people tend to forget: such a scenario is worst-case. Change, including death, is a part of life, and it's good to have a system in place that prepares for changes big and small. But that doesn't mean the people in the system are willing to bring about such a drastic change.

In other words, no one would want to willingly drive that bus.

Less colorfully, no one would voluntarily cut themselves off from the technical talent that created Linux in the first place. To do so would be crazy, because the end result would be a product different from the original Linux kernel and likely not a better one.

What the media and all the other observers need to remember about the GPL debate is that it is just that: a debate. A disagreement about what is right for the direction of free software. The Linux kernel is just the poster child for how the debate will affect change. Or not.

It's time this FUD gets a dose of reality.