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Community: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing? (or, Does Intention Matter?)

By Claude
Rubinson

With dismay, I read Dennis Powell’s recent
interview with Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman of Helix Code
.
Although I have closely followed the continuing development of
GNOME, I have not paid much attention to Helix Code, assuming that
it was just some private company attempting the dubious proposition
of making a profit off of free software. So it was quite a shock to
discover that the lead developer of GNOME, de Icaza, also has a
vested interest in the success of Helix Code.

The decision by Trolltech to license Qt/Free under the GPL was a
significant victory for the free software movement. Neither
Trolltech nor the KDE developers have ever been particularly
supportive of the free software movement. Trolltech’s interest in
Qt/Free is simply the potential revenue derived from purchases of
their commercial implementations of Qt. And the KDE developers have
never hidden that they are not concerned with licensing issues,
but
simply desire “to make KDE the best desktop and application
development platform in existence”
. Yet, Trolltech and the KDE
developers found that they had no reasonable course but to GPL the
Qt/Free library. GPL’ed code is so pervasive throughout GNU/Linux
distributions that a project as massive as KDE could not survive
without a GPL-compatible foundation of code.

The licensing of Qt/Free under the GPL, then, was a victory for
the free software movement not because Trolltech and the KDE
developers realized the righteousness of free software, but because
they discovered that they could not survive in a world of free
software without, themselves, becoming free software. There are no
illusions as to the intentions that led to the decision to GPL
Qt/Free; not to GPL would risk the chances of a successful adoption
of the soon-to-be-released KDE 2.0. But their intentions do not
matter; all that matters is the value of the code that has been
released to the free software community.

Or does intention matter?

Not only is GNOME free software, but it is GNU software. GNU is
built upon a moral foundation, articulated by the
Free Software Foundation,
that holds that software should be
given to the software community free of any legal obligation or
restriction. Moreover, the FSF promotes a “spirit” of free software
that goes beyond the letter of its license — that software should
not only be given to the community freely, but also promote
cooperation among developers in pursuit of the common good
. KDE
is free software, but it was not developed in the spirit of free
software. Rather, the KDE developers intended their product to
dominate the desktop and Trolltech intended to reap the rewards of
that monopoly. The FSF, however, has always stood for developing
software that fills — rather than creates — a need. The
development of GNOME, itself, commenced with a recognition of the
need to develop a free alternative to non-free desktop
environments.

Like Trolltech, Helix Code is a for-profit company. As a
for-profit company, Helix Code is obligated to generate revenue,
minimize expenses, and attempt to make a profit. Such obligations
are not compatible with the spirit of free software. On the
contrary, the spirit of free software demands that the developer
consider the needs of the community rather than the particular
interest of any individual or organization. Furthermore, it is a
necessary right that the developer be permitted to pursue that goal
freely, without restriction or obligation.

Yet the employees of Helix Code have no such right. They are
obligated by their employment contracts to develop Helix GNOME in
accordance with the needs and interests of the company.
Consequently, although Helix GNOME is free software, like KDE, it
is not developed in the spirit of free software.

But Helix GNOME is product distinct from that of GNOME. So
what’s the problem?

The problem is de Icaza. His obligations to produce a
profit-making product for Helix Code are incompatible with his
position as lead developer of GNOME, a GNU project. The development
and direction of GNOME will be influenced by the need of Helix Code
to make a profit. de Icaza’s position with Helix Code obligates him
to consider the needs of Helix Code when developing GNOME.

Consequently, GNOME, while free software, is no longer being
developed in the spirit of free software. The interests of GNOME’s
lead developer violates that spirit.

What should be done?

I would ask that the Board of the FSF carefully consider the
position of GNOME in relation to GNU. What does it mean to be GNU
software? Is it enough to simply comply with the FSF’s definition
of free software? Or should GNU software be held to a higher
standard, one that is consistent with the spirit of free software?
If the latter, the relationship between GNOME, Helix GNOME, Helix
Code, and de Icaza must be carefully scrutinized.

© 2000 Claude Rubinson
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