Commentary: Open letter to Michael Robertson from Bruce Perens

Dear Michael Robertson,

I don’t think we’ve met, but you and I are partners. I’m one of the authors of the “Lindows” system.”
First, I’d like to thank you for what has done to support Free Software: helping with the Debian and WINE conferences, contributing to the KDE League, and code contributions to WINE and through

I’m delighted to see you investing in a Linux-based desktop, and wish you all possible success in promoting it. Certainly you are welcome to sell copies of my software, and you don’t have to pay me for the privilege. Modify it, use it for any purpose, all of that’s fine.

But Michael, please remember that we are partners. For all that you’ve done for the Free Software community, we’ve done at least as much for you. And our partnership has rules that we are both honor-bound to follow. In the case of my work on Lindows, those rules are the terms of the GPL. You accepted those terms, and became my partner, when you chose to incorporate my software into your product and distribute it to others.

There is a pragmatic reason that I ask you to fulfill your source-code obligation any time you distribute a copy of my work from one legal entity to another: Sadly, some companies never make it to release 1.0. In that case, the pre-release versions provide the only opportunity for a company to fulfill its source-code obligation. Another reason is that if we’re lax in enforcing our terms with you, other companies will think they can violate those terms with impunity.

In addition to pragmatic reasons, there’s principle. In entering into the GPL relationship, partners agree not to unilaterally modify their partnership, for example, by overlaying the terms of a non-disclosure agreement upon the license. Partners agree not to delay their source-code obligation. You can be sure that I’ll honor those terms when I distribute your code. If you want to behave differently, please negotiate a new contract with me.

The terms of our partnership make it difficult for you to keep your system secret from your competitors before its release, and they obligate you to distribute the source for intermediate versions. Although this may cause you difficulty, it’s necessary in order to operate a partnership that’s fair to all parties. Some of those other parties are your competitors. We don’t want to see them hold back changes from you, and we don’t want to see anyone do needless, redundant work.

You seem surprised that some people in the community aren’t friendly to your company. Too many of us have seen companies attempt, sometimes cynically, to capitalize on our work without ever understanding the source of our success, and without being good partners. One of the reasons your company has come in for criticism is that looks too much like Corel, and even seems to be following Corel’s history. Corel tried to hold back source during its beta test, and tried to overlay an NDA on top of the GPL terms. It later turned out that Corel had KDE changes in development without feeding them back for so long that the public KDE source and the Corel version could not be reconciled. We’d prefer not to see a replay of that.

I was distressed by your treatment of FSF and Bradley Kuhn, reported in NewsForge. Brad is a reasonable person and is advised by a top-notch attorney, Professor Eben Moglen of the Columbia University Law School. As another of your partners, Brad was within his rights to ask to see the source. The comment you made about “eating your young” is inappropriate. In your place, I’d apologize to Brad and make sure that your company is fulfilling its entire obligation on a timely basis.

You also commented about the lack of successful Linux companies. This is not due to the community treatment of Linux businesses, but the fact that Open Source is not a business and should not be treated as one. It’s successful when operated as a cost-center, in businesses that make their money some other way. The most successful ones use the software they develop for some business purpose: For example, Apache developers use the software to implement Web sites for their businesses, IBM and HP make money by selling hardware that runs with Linux, not by selling Linux.

Eric Raymond and others theorized that support would be a good way to fund Open Source, but the support model has under-performed so far, because the early adopters are too self-supporting. Sales of proprietary software to support the Open Source development are also under-performing, as Linux customers, even within the Fortune 500, have become wary of dependence on non-Open Source. Thus, no Linux distribution has been more than marginally profitable so far. My surmise is that over the long term, a non-profit like Debian supported by hardware manufacturers and other businesses will work best. But I’d be delighted to see you prove me wrong.

Michael, please email if there’s anything I can help you with.


Bruce Perens

“Commentary” articles are contributed by and readers. The opinions they contain are strictly those held by their authors, and may not be the same as those held by OSDN management. We welcome “Commentary” contributions from anyone who deals with Linux and Open Source at any level, whether as a corporate officer; as a programmer or sysadmin; or as a home/office desktop user. If you would like to write one, please email with “Commentary” in the subject line.


  • Migration