After stirring up a ruckus by using words like “restrictive” and “virus” to describe the GPL in a Linux.com article, the Linux Foundation responds by quietly removing the post from the website.
The Linux Foundation has no respect for FOSS. Nor does it seem care about any users of Linux who aren’t connected with the enterprise. It’s been that way since the beginning. It now appears that the Foundation also has little respect for the GPL…you know, Linux’s license. Nor does it appear to be much of a believer in the notion of transparency.
Many of us were hopeful when in 2007, Open Source Development Labs merged with the Free Standards Group to form the Linux Foundation, the umbrella organization that nurtures the development of Linux and other major open source projects. In my case, I expected most of the new organization’s efforts to be centered on enterprise use of Linux, since that’s where most of its use lies and where the money is being made, However, I did expect to see at least some efforts by the new foundation to support desktop Linux, on both development and marketing fronts. After all, it was the enthusiasm of the desktop base in the 1990s that brought Linux to the enterprise in the 2000s.
I also expected the foundation to be a steadfast supporter of the GPL.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Jim Zimlin, the foundation’s head honcho since before the beginning (he was also top dog at FSG), decided to go for the big bucks the corporate world was offering and pretty much sold the folks who’d been using Linux since before there was a Red Hat down the river. As far as I can tell, Zimlin & Company hasn’t spent more than 50 cents and ten minutes of effort on desktop Linux in the 10 years the foundation has been around. No money in a co-op advertising kitty to incentivise OEMs to push desktops with Linux preinstalled. No money to help distro developers create a better product. As far as the Linux Foundation is concerned, desktop Linux users and developers are on their own.
The focus on the enterprise is understandable. The foundation’s twelve Platinum Members collectively shell out $6 million annually to have a say in how the foundation directs the development of Linux and its other open source projects. Thirteen Gold Members add an additional $1.3 million to that total. And that’s not counting nearly 300 Silver Members who pay between $5,000 and $20,000 annually, adding at least another $1.5 million to the till.
The organization has also shown a preference for “permissive” licenses, such as Apache, over “copyleft” licenses like the GPL, under which both GNU and Linux — the two major components of a Linux desktop distro — are licensed. This is understandable, as most corporate users and developers of open source prefer licenses that keep the door open for them to employ the code into proprietary projects.
What isn’t understandable, or acceptable, is referring to the GPL in terms reminicent of those used by Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer in the first decade of the 21st century.
On March 23, the Linux Foundation posted an article on its website, Linux.com, by Greg Olson, the foundation’s senior director open source consulting services. In the article, “Five Legal Risks For Companies Involved in Open Source Software Development,” he wrote that “permissive licenses present little risk,” while referring to the GPL and other copyleft licenses as “Restrictive Licenses” and “viral.”
“The most permissive licenses present little risk and few compliance requirements. These licenses include BSD and MIT, and others, that have minimal requirements, all the way to Apache and the Eclipse Public License, which are more elaborate in addressing contributions, patents, and indemnification.
“In the middle of the spectrum are the so-called ‘weak viral licenses’ which require sharing source code to any changes made to the originally licensed code, but not sharing of other source code linked or otherwise bound to the original open source code in question. The most popular and frequently encountered licenses in this category are the Mozilla Public License and the Common Public Attribution License.
“Restrictive Licenses present the most legal risk and complexity for companies that re-distribute or distribute software. These licenses are often termed ‘viral’ because software combined and distributed with this licensed software must be provided in source code format under the terms of those licenses. These requirements present serious risks to the preservation of proprietary software rights. The GNU General Public License is the archetype of this category, and is, in fact, the most widely used open source license in the world.”
While his points are accurate enough, and reflect what I’ve already written in this article, the terms he uses suggest that the foundation holds the GPL and other copyleft licenses in contempt.
This flies in the face of Linux creator Linus Torvalds’ own stated feelings on the subject. At last year’s Linux Foundation sponsored LinuxCon in Toronto, Torvalds spoke on this very issue when making observations about the BSD license.
“I think that if you actually want to create something bigger, and if you want to create a community around it, the BSD license is not necessarily a great license.
“I mean, it’s worked fairly well, but you are going to have trouble finding outside developers who feel protected by a big company that says, ‘Hey, here’s this BSD license thing and we’re not making any promises because the copyright allows us to do anything, and allows you to do anything too.’ But as an outside developer, I would not get the warm and fuzzies by that, because I’m like, ‘Oh, this big company is going to take advantage of me,’ while the GPL says, ‘Yes, the company may be big, but nobody’s ever going to take advantage of your code. It will remain free and nobody can take that away from you.’ I think that’s a big deal for community management.
“It wasn’t something I was planning personally when I started, but over the years I’ve become convinced that the BSD license is great for code you don’t care about. I’ll use it myself. If there’s a library routine that I just want to say ‘hey, this is useful to anybody and I’m not going to maintain this,’ I’ll put it under the BSD license.”
I’m not the only person taking exception to Olson’s article. On the day it was posted, the Free Software Foundation’s executive director, John Sullivan, posted a series of tweets critical of the article. “There are many sites where I’d expect to see this article, but not @linuxfoundation,” he tweeted. “Copyleft is not ‘riskier.’ Permissive licenses allow proprietary reuse, and ‘proprietary’ licensing is far more complicated and risky.”
FOSS Advocate and writer Simon Phipps also took exception to the article, posting an annotated version by way of the Genius website, and tweeting for people to add their own annotations. In a reply to a retweet of Brian Proffitt he said, “Seems Black Duck FUD against copyleft has found a new home at @linuxfoundation.”
The Linux Foundation’s handling of the situation after-the-fact was perhaps more telling than the article itself. Instead of admitting something like “an unfortunate choice of words” and opening up a dialog around the article — which would have been “the open source way” — the foundation took an action that seems akin to something the Ballmer era Microsoft would’ve done. They quietly and without comment removed public access to the article.
Nothing to see here. Move on.
So much for transparency.