By Rachel Chalmers The first commercial trade show held for Linux has triggered a bout of soul-searching among the leading lights of the open source and free software movements. The tension simmering between the two communities came to a head in February when Debian founder Bruce Perens left the Open Source Initiative (OSI) to return […]
By Rachel Chalmers
The first commercial trade show held for Linux has triggered a bout of soul-searching among the leading lights of the open source and free software movements. The tension simmering between the two communities came to a head in February when Debian founder Bruce Perens left the Open Source Initiative (OSI) to return to his Free Software roots. Among the first to comment on the breach was Thomas Scoville of O’Reilly and Associates (ORA). Ironically, ORA was the company at the center of the Perens storm. Free software purists have criticized ORA founder Tim O’Reilly for years because he retains intellectual property in the books he publishes – books the free software community argues are morally equivalent to software, all of which, in their view, should be free.
As Scoville put it: The battle for ideological control of computing’s next wave is being waged by two factions. One of those factions – the OSI – wants to loosen the industry’s grip on intellectual property. The other – the Free Software Foundation (FSF) – wants to do away with IP altogether. Scoville observes that while the OSI is clearly the more accommodating of the two communities, the very simplicity of the FSF position lends it a certain moral strength. The OSI is also in the pernicious position of sleeping with the enemy, he points out. It’s not clear that corporate hard-chargers will be able to defer their attention from IPO, quarterly reporting and inter-corporate knife-fighting long enough to recognize how the Open Source proposition may ultimately appeal to their self interests, Scoville concludes, ideological high-ground aside, it will be interesting to see if the Open Source concept holds up in the cross-fire.
The next shots were fired by legendary Linux kernel hacker Alan Cox, the man entrusted with issuing patches on those rare occasions when Linus Torvalds takes a break. Cox did not attend Linux World Expo, but from his vantage point in Swansea, Wales, issued a thoughtful editorial to hacker web site Slashdot.org. So the suits have invaded your favourite OS, do you care, should you care? The answer is probably yes, Cox wrote. A large number of people are about to collide with a community they don’t understand which has a long history of its own independence. Cox betrayed his pragmatic, open source leanings when he urged Linux developers to welcome these newcomers to the community and to initiate them gently. Do look after our visiting suits, Cox wrote, they come from a strange land and have strange rituals like ‘Trade Shows’. Be assured they find our rituals of talking about technical material in detail just as strange.
The climax came on Wednesday afternoon when most of the major players – the FSF’s ultra-hardliner Richard Stallman, the OSI’s Eric Raymond and Linus Torvalds himself – gathered for a Linux World Expo panel. The increasing commercialization of the Linux community which Cox noted was for Stallman a cause for severe complaint. Nowadays the system is so attractive for technical reasons that people are using it for reasons that have nothing to do with freedom, he said. [Freedom] isn’t getting talked about. That makes our community broad and shallow.
Like his lieutenant Alan Cox, Linus Torvalds is a pragmatist. He appeared to offer Stallman a mild rebuke when he said: I choose to live this way but I don’t need to force my way of life onto other people… I enjoy working at a commercial company and the work that pays my mortgage and feeds my kids and it is producing a commercial product that is proprietary. To Stallman, Torvalds’ hybrid model – part free software, part commercial and proprietary work – is an anathema. In spite of their deep differences, however, the panel did not come to blows. Indeed by the end, the notoriously argumentative Stallman was sounding almost conciliatory. I’m not anti-business, he protested, I’m anti-some-businesses…. I’m against companies that poison good will. The last word went to Eric Raymond, who sought to heal b
reaches with the words: If it weren’t for Richard Stallman, none of us would be here today. The audience gave Stallman and Raymond a standing ovation.