August 10, 2007

Linus explains why open source works

Author: Bruce Byfield

Linus Torvalds is often described as an open source champion, interested in licensing only insofar as it affects his ability to share code and improve software more quickly. However, his real position is more complicated -- and to some, perhaps surprising.

Asked point-blank which is more important, sharing code or empowering users -- the declared goal of the free software champions whom Torvalds is routinely depicted as being in opposition with -- and his first response in what he calls "the usual Linus polite words" is "That's a really stupid question. Why do you put it as an 'either or' kind of concept?" He then goes on to explain that, because open source operates in the same manner as scientific query, and is a matter of enlightened self-interest, sharing code and empowering users "are not at odds at all" -- a view that, in the end, places him closer to the free software position than either free software or open source followers might care to admit.

Torvalds has been quoted many times about his emphasis on sharing code, especially during the debates about the recently released third version of the GNU General Public License (GPL). Most famously, in an interview with Forbes magazine in March 2006, Torvalds explained his preference for the second version of the license by saying, "The GPLv2 in no way limits your use of the software. If you're a mad scientist, you can use GPLv2'd software for your evil plans to take over the world ('Sharks with lasers on their heads!!'), and the GPLv2 just says that you have to give source code back. And that's OK by me. I like sharks with lasers. I just want the mad scientists of the world to pay me back in kind. I made source code available to them, they have to make their changes to it available to me. After that, they can fry me with their shark-mounted lasers all they want."

However, responding recently to the question of whether code sharing or user empowerment was more important, Torvalds makes clear that such quotes are only half the story.

Torvalds begins his explanation by talking about science, implying that free and open source software development falls into that category. The dichotomy in the question, he says, "makes no sense. Science clearly does empower humans, but, the fact is, it does so because it has hit on a working model of the universe, and the reason it has done that is because it has a process in place for getting there that works. Sharing information is a small part of that model.

"Human inquisitiveness is an even bigger part. The fact is, what's most important is people. How they are inquisitive, and want to figure out and control the world. How they all have that selfish interest in improving their own lot in life, and almost by mistake they then end up improving other people's lot in life, too, by uncovering some small detail that explains a bit more about the universe.

"The same is true of open source. It's not about 'sharing information' per se: that's just a small part of it -- it's a part of the tools to create better software."

Nor is open source about altruism in Torvalds' view. Instead, he sees it as a matter of enlightened self-interest. "That is worth celebrating: the constant individual struggle to improve your own standing. That little selfish person who tries to take advantage of everybody else by making the minimal possible outlay (preferably by using mostly the source code that somebody else has done) and incrementally improving it with relatively small effort."

The short-term result of this attitude, Torvalds says, is that "for a while, that person gains an advantage, because now the tool did what he wanted. And in the longer term, we all gain that knowledge. One small and meaningless advantage at a time, and it just builds up and up.

"That is where it's at. It's about 'empowering everybody' by letting some enterprising users empower themselves, and then taking advantage of it for everybody else."

The worldview that Torvalds expresses here helps to explain why he has been so vocal in his opposition to the latest version of the GPL, and plans to stay with the second version. No doubt past clashes with the Free Software Foundation color his outlook, but the conflict is more fundamental than one of different personalities.

For Torvalds, the problem with the provisions for patent-sharing and for restricting the use of lockdown technologies -- what the Free Software Foundation prefers to call TiVoization -- is that they keep some people out of the free exchange of ideas that characterizes open source. "That's the whole point of open source -- different people and entities have different goals, and the very differences are what makes it work well for everybody," he says. "Anybody who tries to hobble science by saying that they won't share information with people they dislike (the military, for example) is seen as an obvious crackpot and idiot. The same, to me, is true of open source."

However, amid the echoes of ongoing conflicts, what is even more important is the often overlooked fact that the distinction between free software and open source philosophies is not as great as it is frequently made out to be.

Torvalds is understandably cautious about journalists' uses of his words. He points out that they often use quotes to say what they don't have the courage to say for themselves, and that how people represent him tells a lot "about the opinions they hold." Yet, even so, Torvalds' denial of the dichotomy between the supposed aims of the two camps suggests that the differences between free software and open source are not so much a matter of philosophy, but a matter of tactics to realize that philosophy. While the Free Software Foundation tries to reach those goals by legal means, open source advocates like Torvalds suggest that all that is needed is for people to act as people normally do.

From this perspective, Torvalds' views highlight a fact that has often been overlooked in the recent GPL debates: free software and open source supporters are allies. They may be uneasy allies, blowing raspberries at each other and slinging mud at each other at every opportunity, but they are allies all the same. It's a fact worth mentioning, simply because it hasn't been repeated much recently.


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