It's a cliche, but it's an apt one: "God save me from my friends
- I can protect myself from my enemies." Theodore Ts'o wrote an
anti-Free Software rant this week that could have come straight
from the massive, never-sleeping Redmond FudMachine,
Debian, Philosophy, and People. He seems to blame Free Software
for Debian's ills.
If you're not familiar with Mr. Ts'o, his achievements are
legion. He is a Debian maintainer and a filesystem guru, and has
been a key Linux kernel developer since the early days of Linux.
Next year he will go on leave from IBM to serve a stint at the
Linux Foundation as their Chief Technology Officer.
All of those amazing creds makes his rant all the more
perplexing. In a few paragraphs he delivers an impressive number of
loaded anti-Free Software terms: militant, zealot, no compromises,
absolutist, idolatry, and Politically Correct. He drags in the war
in Iraq, Jesus, the Ten Commandments, Victor Hugo, Thomas Aquinas,
and Gordon Dickson.
Why is Mr. Ts'o so down on Free Software? After reading his article
several times, it seems more correct to say he is down on the
Debian project because of the recent brawl over Lenny's release.
Now that I can understand-- the Debian project is the Berkeley of
Linux: twice as many opinions as people, and four times as loud.
Trolls and dorks of all kinds are accorded maximum free speech
rights, but anyone who complains about them is shushed with "It's
just another viewpoint," as though insults and personal attacks
were just honest differences of opinion between reasonable people
of goodwill. The torrents of vitriol are overwhelming, so being
upset is understandable and natural.
But that doesn't explain Mr. Ts'os peculiar rant, which blames
Free Software for Debian's problems. It seems that someone with his
skills and experience would have a better understanding of Free
Software, and not say things like:
"More blood's been spilled by the militant adherents of
prophets of change than by any other group of people down through
the history of man."
"It is the notion of Free Software as a philosophy, with no
compromises, which has been the source of many of the disputes
"The conflict between idealism and pragmatism is a very old one
in the Free and Open Source Software Movement."
That first quote leaves me speechless. Thanks a lot, dude, I
guess I should be happy you saved Hitler for later instead of
whacking readers with him right off the bat. The second one is just
plain daft. Debian has long had what I think is a very sensible
compromise in place: the official supported Debian release is 100%
Free Software. For folks who want unsupported third-party or
non-free applications, there are separate Debian repositories. It's
a beautiful system that gives users maximum control of what goes on
their own computers. (Actually it is somewhat less than 100%
because of binary kernel blobs for which no sources are available,
which is part of the recent dispute. See the References for more
The third quote is a key point. Like so many people, he is
confusing pragmatism with expedience. Free Software licenses are
the most pragmatic licenses there are, because they guarantee
maximum freedom and benefits to both users and developers. We are
protected from vendor lock-in, obsolescence, sneaky backdoors, DRM
(digital restrictions management) crud, and all forms of vendor
abuse. Developers who contribute to Free Software know that their
work will not be locked up and hidden away. Everything is open,
transparent, and accountable. What's not to like?
It is not pragmatic to tolerate closed, proprietary, binary
drivers in the kernel, but expedient. It is a short-term tactic
that does not contribute to a sustainable long-term solution. The
poster child for this is Nvidia-- after all these years is Nvidia
any closer to releasing FOSS drivers? Not one whit.
The obligatory "yes but" makes an appearance:
"I personally believe that "100% free software" is a
wonderful aspirational goal, but...."
I guess I should be glad he didn't use the even more cringeworthy
"Don't get me wrong, but..."
Freedom Is Bad?
Linus' disdain for Richard Stallman, the Free Software Foundation,
and enforcing the GPL in regards to the kernel is well-known. Now
we have another high-ranking kernel developer dissing on Free
Software. Why? What is about freedom that turns off so many people?
Is there suddenly so much Free Software in the world that we need
to pollute it with closed, proprietary gunk? I'm not going to go
all pundit and claim this is a trend that signals the doom of
Linux, though it is tempting. A core, essential freedom of Free
Software is the end user gets to control what goes on their
systems. All these people who think freedom means forcing more
proprietary junk on everyone are missing the point by several
There are a number of same old oft-repeated responses to these
issues: "I just want it to work. Leave the politics out of it. Too
much idealism is bad." etc etc... a lot of these are answered in
"Myths, Lies, and Truths about the Linux kernel". That is Greg
Kroah-Hartman's famous talk that states plainly "Closed source
Linux kernel modules are illegal." Greg K-H went on to launch the
Free Linux Driver Development! project, which has succeeded in
attracting a lot of vendors to the world of GPL drivers. Mr.
Kroah-Hartman is also a leading kernel developer, so it is good I
did not cry doom.
Free Software is not responsible for the Debian project
providing a safe haven for unpleasant people. I'm no ace kernel
hacker, nor even a college graduate, but you don't need those to
see the obvious.
Resolution: Lenny and resolving DFSG violations
Debian goes to the
and Truths about the Linux kernel
Linux Driver Development Questions and Answers!
"I'm tired of people
thinking they have a right to violate my copyright all the
Would I be violating
the GPL?; Alan Cox weighs in on blobs