Open Source

Why the latest Linux Foundation flame war is a waste of time for open source advocates

The Linux Foundation is under fire over a recent article it posted on licensing, and it's hard to see why.

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Image: iStockphoto/wabeno

For those who miss the inane religious debates of the early open source (I mean, free and open source) world, take heart: The ridiculous name calling and finger pointing is alive and well. For a perfect case study, take free software advocate Christine Hall's bizarre misreading of an innocuous Linux Foundation article entitled Five Legal Risks For Companies Involved in Open Source Software Development, since pulled down in the wake of weeping, wailing, and GNU'shing of teeth. Not content to leave roadkill well enough alone, the HackerNews community took up the battle, that debate overrun with words like "taint," "freeloading," and "locked up."

In a world that has so clearly embraced open source, how can we continue to waste time on such inanities as how many angels will fit on the head of a GPL'd pin?

Are we reading the same article?

Hall, described as "Grandmama Frump" on her own site, seems to be wired for angry free software invectives (and can be quite clever and funny), following in the cheery tradition of Richard Stallman, godfather of angry free software language. Even so, reading Hall's broadside against the Linux Foundation, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the foundation itself is Satan's tool for destroying freedom everywhere. Without any sort of a warm-up, Hall wrote:

The Linux Foundation has no respect for FOSS. Nor does it seem [to] 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.

Um, ok. Now let's look at the post in question hosted on the Linux Foundation's site. Brace yourselves:

The most permissive licenses present little risk and few compliance requirements. These licenses include BSD and MIT, and others....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 [e.g., Mozilla Public 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.

It's ok. You can now uncover your eyes. The evil has passed.

SEE: Why Linux creator Linus Torvalds doesn't really care about open source (TechRepublic)

What evil, you say? Exactly. The article is descriptive. It doesn't take sides. (I do, however, and can be counted to take sides against restrictive licenses like the GPL.) But that's me, and that's Hall, and we both have a long history fighting over licensing.

For the young'uns on HackerNews, however, what's their excuse?

Raising up a new generation of free sourcerors

The HackerNews crowd skews young, and should be somewhat removed from the FOSS wars of yesteryear. Judging from the (at times) heated discussion rolling there about Hall's article, we're raising a new generation of fighters.

One commentator called the Linux Foundation's article "a pretty major PR blunder," likening it to "Microsoft's website under some Get the Facts stamp" from a decade ago. Another dubbed it "propaganda by the anti-copyleft crowd," despite being hosted on the website of an organization set up to promote the world's most popular copyleft-licensed product (Linux). Others waded in with helpful commentary like this: "Proprietary code is toxic by nature."

Others countered the criticism by suggesting that "pretending that every project should be licensed under copyleft licenses or that there's no room for criticism of the GPL smacks of zealotry." For me, however, one of the best comments came from this observer: "There's a legitimate debate to be had about copyleft vs. less restrictive licenses, but articles like this aren't helping matters for GPL - all they do is strengthen the image of copyleft advocates as being extremists who are detached from reality."

Which strikes me as exactly right.

The article in question was pretty innocuous. The response is not. It hurts the very cause that free software advocates espouse, and is probably one more reason that permissive licenses like BSD and Apache have become dominant. In short, they come with far less attitude.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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