- By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols -
What roles do Richard Stallman and the Free Software
Foundation (FSF) really play these days and what roles will they
play in the future? All is not well with Open Source and its older
brother, Free Software. Some Open Source companies, like VA
Linux, are heading to proprietary software development, and Microsoft's top brass has been throwing the old trinity of fear, uncertainty and doubt at the GPL.
Caldera Systems is moving
away from the FSF vision as fast as its feet can
carry it, and in mid-August, Ulrich Drepper of Red Hat, a
leading Free Software developer and long time critic of the FSF,
denounced Richard M. Stallman, the FSF's president, in the
glibc 2.2.4 release notes. Never before has the FSF faced so
many varied challenges.
Clearly, the FSF still carries clout. The FSF claimed on
September 14 that FSMLabs had violated the GNU General
Public License in its RTLinux real-time Linux program. By the
following Monday, the FSF and Victor Yodaiken, FMSLab's CEO had come to an agreement with Yodaiken in a press release declaring that "both sides agreed, in
principle, to a settlement of the dispute and a cessation to
Even so, RTLinux wasn't pleased to have been in the conflict in
the first place. In an earlier NewsForge report, Yodaiken indicated that the issue was a political one at the Free Software Foundation, and he suggested the
foundation is mixing its roles as defender of the GPL and
intellectual property advocate. Cort Dougan, FSMLabs director
of engineering also said on September 18 that "there
were those who were upset with us, and we appreciate their
idealism and enthusiasm. But we're also ready to move on to
more productive activities."
This is hardly the first time that the FSF has stepped forward to
defend the GPL, and the other side thought the FSF was
missing the point. But, as Eben Moglen, law professor at Columbia University Law School and pro bono General Counsel of the FSF, points out in his recently published
document, Enforcing the GNU GPL, "Despite the FUD, as a
copyright license the GPL is absolutely solid. That's why I've
been able to enforce it dozens of times over nearly ten years,
without ever going to court."
Beyond the GPL
Underneath this latest conflict lies the common mistake of
thinking that the FSF and the open software movement have the
same goals. They don't.
Bradley M. Kuhn, vice president of the FSF, describes the
difference: "The FSF is not affiliated with the Open Source
Movement. We stand strongly for software freedom, and for
the philosophical, ethical, and political issues that arise from a
commitment to fighting for software freedom. By contrast, the
Open Source Movement focuses on the practical and technical
aspects, but avoids the philosophy and ethics."
He continues: "For the most part, it was 'Open Source' that
VA Linux, Caldera, and similar companies signed on to. The
fact that those companies turned to proprietary software when
they couldn't make as much money as they wanted with purely
Free Software is thus not surprising. This situation is exactly
what we warned the myopic view of Open Source might bring.
Since these companies never took a strong philosophical
stand, we aren't surprised that when things got tough, they
abandoned the ideals of software freedom (or simply never
signed on to them in the first place)."
It's not that simple, though, according to Linus Torvalds, Linux's
creator. "I think the most common misconception people have is
thinking that the 'Open Source' group is one group. It isn't. It's
never really been that. And it's equally wrong to think that it is
two groups (the 'Open Source' people and the 'Free Software?'
people). That's a refinement of the 'one group' theory, but it's
still much too simplistic."
Torvalds continues" "The fact is that there are a lot of different
people and groups, and they all have their own reasons to get
involved. And people tend to focus on the most vocal, and on
the fringe -- the two often overlap strongly -- while ignoring all the
shades of color in between. The only thing they have in common
is really that a lot of different people think they get things done
more easily if they work together -- even if they really don't tend
to share any other belief at all."
Credit where credit is due
That said, Stacey Quandt, Giga Information Group's associate
analyst for Linux and Open Source, speaks for many when she
observes: "Without the work of RMS and the Free
Software Foundation it is unlikely that Open Source software
would be as broadly used." Bruce Perens, an Open Source
leader and Hewlett-Packard's senior strategist for Linux and Open Source,
agrees: "One way that you can measure the effectiveness
of RMS and FSF is to look at licensing and the success of
projects. BSD is a good OS kernel, but Linux gets the attention,
because its licensing includes a good quid-pro-quo for the
developers. RMS invented that quid-pro-quo."
But what about today? Quandt says, "While the underlying
philosophy of the FSF may be helpful to organizations
considering Open Source products, the highly charged political
agenda of FSF is not. To a large degree, RMS and the FSF have
become a moral compass but for many the ideology is at times
overwhelming and counterproductive to broad enterprise
adoption of Open Source technology."
Of course, that's the point. The FSF's idealistic goals are not the
same as those of Open Source advocates. They never were, they
never will be.
Some, though, think that the FSF's philosophical position is
diminishing its influence. Torvalds notes, "Does RMS tend
to get enemies with his black-and-white world-view? Sure. He
always has. Ask just about anybody that has known him for
more than ten years: They either hate his guts, or stand by him in
any weather." And, "Does the FSF have the same kind of
relationships? Yes, although maybe not as strongly as RMS
He continues: "Does it all really matter? I doubt it does. RMS
and the FSF are the equivalent of the right-wing Christian
coalition -- a fringe group, but a group that perhaps exactly
because of its fringeness does sometimes get things done, just
because they believe in their agenda so strongly."
What's different now, according to Torvalds, is that "there is a
'moderate' group these days, something that didn't exist ten
years ago. That moderate group is the one that tends to interact
with the rest of the world, and in many ways gets things done
that RMS and the FSF never could have."
Does the FSF have a future?
Eric Raymond, the Open Source evangelist, isn't that optimistic
about FSF's future, saying, "Barring extraordinary
leadership and a major change of direction (which I don't rule
out; it never pays to underestimate RMS's intelligence) I think
the FSF looks likely to self-destruct before long."
In any case, Raymond believes "RMS and the FSF are
facing a steep decline in their influence because they have
developed neither a sufficient practical reply to the Linux kernel
nor a sufficient theoretical reply to the Open-Source rationale and
marketing campaign ('software that doesn't suck') developed by
Torvalds and myself and others. In retrospect it seems pretty
clear to most people (at least a 2:1 ratio, according to a recent
Web-content analysis) that the FSF's rhetoric actually held us
back for a long time."
Of course, Raymond's "us" is Open Source advocates and that's
not the same thing as FSF's most hardcore supporters. But Raymond is more than willing to give the FSF credit: "Before the rise of cheap Internet in 1993-1994, the FSF had a vital role independent of its propaganda -- it was seen as an essential
incubator, funding source and hosting service for large projects."
But, he also notes that the FSF has had problems before. "The
EGCS/GCC flap, in which an outside group proved it could do
a better job maintaining one of FSF's core projects than the
FSF's own hand-picked designees, pretty much put paid to (the)
theory" that the FSF could do well for hosting large coding
projects, he says. "Since then, I think the community has increasingly
been asking itself. 'What is the FSF good for?' and not finding an
Not all Open Source advocates though would agree with
Raymond's assessment of FSF's capabilities. Perens says,
"The successful (Free Software) projects, for the most part,
happen to be the ones that are closest to RMS's philosophy. I
just sat through a meeting of Free Software and Open Source
Leaders, and it's astonishing how little the (Open Source)
'pragmatists' can get done. The Open Source Initiative can't
even keep its Web site up to date."
Still Raymond believes that "the FSF's support has been
dwindling to a progressively smaller hard core of True Believers
since 1998. As one might expect from studying similar historical
situations, the effect of this has been a kind of spiral into
fundamentalism; as they tend to take more extreme positions
more loudly, they shed their mainstream sympathizers, which
empowers the radicals to take even more extreme positions."
To Raymond this "process began with RMS's insistence on the
'GNU/Linux' label. It continued with his attempts to separate
the 'Free Software Movement' from the 'Open-Source
Movement,' a near-suicidal blunder that gave Microsoft exactly
the opening it was looking for earlier this year until the leaders of
both communities pulled together on a joint statement. The
process has now reached a late stage at which the FSF is
destructively purging itself -- Tim Ney and Leslie Proctor, who
were the adult supervision over there, are gone. According to a
disgusted ex-staffer I spoke with at OScon, 'the inmates have
taken over the asylum.' "
But what could replace it?
Of course, that's a matter of opinion. While words can get
heated on both sides, it's worth noting that part of the conflict
between Open Source and Free Software is because, as Robert J.
Chassell, director and treasurer of the FSF, puts it, "Many of
the people involved in programming are stubborn and difficult.
Unlike salesmen or diplomats, they are not into social harmony.
They fight each other all the time."
Chassell still sees the FSF as having the same role it has for the
first 17 years of its existence: "Preserve, protect, and
promote the goals of freedom for people who
write, fund, or use software." In contrast to Raymond, he sees a
groundswell of support for the FSF's goals. "Yet in spite of difficulties, more and more people support the goal that this industry should be based on freedom."
Kuhn amplifies this theme: "In the long run, a strong ethical
stance for software freedom is what will improve society. The
FSF works toward a world where all published software is Free
Software. It's been a hard road this far, and it could very well
get harder before it gets easier. Laws like the DMCA and
UCITA can hamper and stifle Free Software development in
some countries if we don't fight such laws."
As for Microsoft and its attacks, Kuhn says: "Microsoft has
realized that users got a taste of software freedom with
GNU/Linux systems, and that users enjoy this freedom.
Software freedom is completely antithetical to Microsoft's
strategy: Microsoft, and other proprietary software companies,
lock users into proprietary software licenses that
leaves them helpless. These freedoms, that are ensured by the
GNU GPL, are a threat to Microsoft's plans, so Microsoft
attacks us and berates us."
And, according to Perens, these attacks aren't working. "The
consensus seems to be that the Free Software paradigm makes
MS executives say stupid things that they
later have to withdraw. Ballmer (Microsoft's CEO) had to
withdraw the 'cancer' comment. Even Craig Mundie
(Microsoft's senior vice president of advanced strategies) is
down to, 'I just want people to be able to make informed
Disagreements and all, even Raymond thinks that the fall of the
FSF "would be a pity, because I think the increasing number of
people who tend to write the FSF off as useless are actually
*wrong*. There is one important role that it is still uniquely
qualified to play -- legal defense foundation and copyright-
holder-of-record for Open-Source software. I don't know who's
going to do that if the FSF doesn't."
And, perhaps that's the crux of the matter. While clearly there
are profound philosophical disagreements between extremists on
both sides of the Free Software/Open Source divide, each side
needs the other. The FSF's GPL and its dogged defense of it is
the legal foundation for some of the most important Open Source
programs, but the Open Source movement is what took Free
Software from academia into the hurly-burly of the business
Regardless of the winners and losers of the politics of Open
Source and Free Software, in the middle ground of the real world,
the programming efforts still bear fruit. As Perens says,
"GNU/Linux system use is still increasing at least 33% per year,
making it by far the fastest growing operating system." And
that's true whether you call it Linux or GNU/Linux.
Editor's note: VA Linux, mentioned in the story, is NewsForge's corporate parent.