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Kernel Developers: GPL-Only Modules in 2008

Dec 14, 2006, 13:45 (19 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Several Linux kernel developers have suggested that the time has come to set a definitive boundary for what kind of modules should be allowed within the Linux kernel. By January 2008, they maintain, all non-GPL kernel modules will not be allowed.

The move would ban all binary modules in the kernel, a long sticking point for many in the Linux community. The discussion has not clarified whether open source modules that might exist under other licenses would also be banned, but based on the wording thus far, it appears that the GPL is the criteria, not a module's binary status.

The discussion, which sprang up in a thread on the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML) that originally debated driver core patches for Linux 2.6.19, led to a statement from Linux kernel developer Martin Bligh, who wrote: "So let's come out and ban binary modules, rather than pussyfooting around, if that's what we actually want to do."

The response from Linux kernel maintainer Andrew Morton was supportive and outlined the framework for the plan.

"Give people 12 months warning (time to work out what they're going to do, talk with the legal dept, etc) then make the kernel load only GPL-tagged modules," Morton wrote.

Developer Greg Kroah-Hartman then chimed in, indicating that he would be willing to build a patch that would warn developers and users of modules not licensed under the GNU General Public License that such modules would be banned beginning in January 2008. The reasoning for this suggestion was summed up by Kroah-Hartman in the thread.

"Numerous kernel developers feel that loading non-GPL drivers into the kernel violates the license of the kernel and their copyright," he wrote.

The eventual response from kernel founder Linus Torvalds, however, was decidedly not in favor of the plan.

"Btw, I really think this is shortsighted," Torvalds wrote. "It will only result in exactly the crap we were just trying to avoid, namely stupid 'shell game' drivers that don't actually help anything at all, and move code into user space instead."

Torvalds contends that such a move on the Linux kernel would be comparable to what the RIAA is doing in the music industry.

"The silly thing is, the people who tend to push most for this are the exact same people who say that the RIAA etc should not be able to tell people what to do with the music copyrights that they own, and that the DMCA is bad because it puts technical limits over the rights expressly granted by copyright law," Torvalds wrote in his lengthy initial reply. "Doesn't anybody else see that as being hypocritical?"

"If a module arguably isn't a derived work, we simply shouldn't try to say that its authors have to conform to our world view," he added. "We should make decisions on technical merit. And this one is clearly being pushed on anything but."

In essence, Torvalds argued that to unilaterally enforce one set of rules for the Linux kernel is no different that what the MPAA does with DVD encryptions and does not allow Linux users to watch legally watch DVDs on their PCs.

"I happen to believe that there shouldn't be technical measures that keep me from watching my DVD or listening to my music on whatever device I damn well please. Fair use, man. But it should go the other way too: we should not try to assert our copyright rules on other peoples code that wasn't derived from ours, or assert our technical measures that keep people from combining things their way," he stated.

Torvalds recognized that the majority opinion would likely win out in this discussion, but was adamant regarding his own participation.

"I'll not fight the combined opinion of other kernel developers, but I sure as hell won't be the first to merge this, and I sure as hell won't have my tree be the one that causes this to happen," Torvalds indicated, "So go get it merged in the Ubuntu, (Open)SuSE and RHEL and Fedora trees first. This is not something where we use my tree as a way to get it to other trees. This is something where the push had better come from the other direction.

"Because I think it's stupid. So use somebody else than me to push your political agendas, please," he concluded.

The entire ongoing thread, with responses to Torvalds' statements, can be found on the Gmane archive site.

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