Editor's Note: Who's Driving That Bus?
Oct 13, 2006, 22:30 (25 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)
Re-Imagining Linux Platforms to Meet the Needs of Cloud Service Providers
By Brian Proffitt
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
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
You are more than free to read the article and sidebars yourself
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
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.
"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
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
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
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
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.