% fortune -ae paul murphy

Free, as in responsible

Consider this comment by Krehbiel on last Thursday's blog about my inability to see a driving vision behind recent Linux kernel development:

What you may refer to as "Linux," what Richard Stallman wants labelled "the GNU/Linux system," is even more than that. The "Linux distribution" you install (be it Red Hat, Suse, Ubuntu, Gentoo, what have you) has aggregated software from a wide variety of different and *independent* creators, where those creators have agreed on a common ideal called "Open Source". *That* is the vision. It's about giving over to you the freedom to use it, copy it, and customise it any way you like.

Have your employees installed a particular kit more times than the license allows? Have you lost your CD key? Has your company hired an expensive full-time "compliance officer" to tend to these issues? Will the BSA come and audit your company?

Wouldn't you like to be free of these worries?

Which has more value: freedom, or money?

The free part of this vision applies better to Solaris and the BSDs than to Linux - precisely because Stallman's political agenda limits what you're supposed to be able to do with the GPL components in GNU/Linux.

Unfortunately there's a more difficult issue too - politics of another kind. For years the FSF has cheerfully allowed Red Hat to flaunt the intent, if arguably not the letter, of the 1991 GPLV2 by pretending to sell support services for free software while actually licensing expensive software with some level of free support, but then Novell wrote a deal with Microsoft and a lot of sleeping dogs briefly decided to bark.

As a result the GPL3 movement got a solid push with some subsequent redrafts simply writing Novell out of the Linux community. Since then, however, calmer - or at least more commercially sensitive- heads have prevailed with the latest draft proudly sporting a handy grandfather clause designed to let Novell off the hook:

You may not convey a covered work if you are a party to an arrangement with a third party that is in the business of distributing software, under which you make payment to the third party based on the extent of your activity of conveying the work, and under which the third party grants, to any of the parties who would receive the covered work from you, a patent license (a) in connection with copies of the covered work conveyed by you, and/or copies made from those, or (b) primarily for and in connection with specific products or compilations that contain the covered work, which license does not cover, prohibits the exercise of, or is conditioned on the non-exercise of any of the rights that are specifically granted to recipients of the covered work under this License[, unless you entered into that arrangement, or that patent license was granted, prior to March 28, 2007].

Torvalds himself, meanwhile, is reportedly "pretty pleased" with the revisions - and may now consider switching to the new license for the kernel. In truth, of course, he has no real choice because people will be releasing code under the new license and commingling that with code released under the GPLV2 - meaning that he'll be sliding down the slippery slope and eventually have to agree to purely binary library, driver, and application releases too.

Once that happens, however, it should become obvious that the practical difference between the generic BSD licensing approach and the derived GPL3 comes down to the GPL's political rider -viral conditions Linux might well be better off without.

Changing from the GPL2 to a BSD derived license wouldn't be easy - but it wouldn't necessarily be any more tedious, exception driven, and error prone than switching to the GPL3.

And that's the right answer, I think, to Krehbiel's question: it may be time for linux to grow up, leave home, and set out its own agenda for freedom - including the freedom to make money using what is now GPLV2 open source in innovative proprietary products.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.