The GPLv3 Debate: Viewing The Landscape

Posted by dcparris on Nov 1, 2006 1:43 AM EST
LXer Feature; By D.C. Parris (Charlotte, USA)
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LXer Feature: 1-Nov-2006

There has been much debate about the GNU General Public License v3. Unfortunately, much of it has centered more on Stallman's personality and less on the technical issues. Furthermore, many seem to be ignoring history, especially the fact that Xerox' malfunctioning proprietary printer is what led to the explosion of Free Software as a movement. In order to understand the anti-DRM clause, you have to understand the Xerox incident. In this, the first of two articles examining the GPLv3 debate, we will briefly revisit history to see how the GPL came about, and how the debate about the the GPL is turning into a personality conflict, with even journalists making unwarranted attacks on Stallman's character.


Based on comments I have seen in the LXer forums and elsewhere, it seems that some people feel that the anti-tivo-ization clause in the GNU General Public License v3 somehow violates the spirit of the current version. This group is ignoring history. Others seem to think that the GPL is the wrong tool to fight DRM. This group may or may not be right. And then there are those who, while not fully buying into the FSF philosophy to begin with, nevertheless chose to use the license it maintains.

History Revisited

The GNU General Public License, like it or not, has always been a philosophical document. It has always aimed at ensuring that users have the freedom, or right, to control the software that runs on the hardware they own. The GPL has always aimed at ensuring that modifications could be, if the developer so chose, redistributed so that the whole community could benefit. The issue of controlling a printer - a hardware item, mind you - was precisely what led to the development of Free Software as a mission, and ultimately, the idea of a copyleft license.

I think a large number of people - including Torvalds - are missing the point of the GPL. The Anti-DRM clause is not only in the spirit of the GPL, it is the purpose behind Free Software in the first place. Remember that Xerox system Stallman couldn't fix? Stallman initially wrote a program, and released it as Free Software. When James Gosling back-peddled on distributing Gosling EMACS as Free Software, and sold his version to UniPress, Stallman responded by developing the GNU General Public License. This occurred well before Torvalds came along with the Linux kernel.

The historical perspective is important, especially since so many in the community today fail to fully grasp the nature of the beast. Free Software is meant to protect the freedoms of users - whether or not they are (or choose to become) developers. Free Software is, in fact, derived from a philosophy - even many people do not share that philosophy. Given the number of people who do not share the GNU philosophy, it would seem self-evident that our community is not one, but two separate communities, whose ideas sometimes intersect.

Stallman's Character

Some people, both community members and outsiders alike, have attempted to call Stallman's character into question. Questions have been raised about whether he's ever held a real job, about his seemingly bizarre behavior, and whether he is even relevant anymore. Most of the issues raised have little real bearing on the nature of the GPLv3, but it shouldn't hurt to point out a few things that most people could discover on their own, using their favorite search engine. Even so, from journalists to the kernel team, people have been raising side issues to charge the air, or maybe just to get a charge.

Richard Stallman earned his living early on by selling tapes of Free Software, along with printed manuals. He also earned money teaching classes and doing programming work - usually porting EMACS to new platforms. Eventually, the Free Software Foundation became the distribution vehicle, and he (presumably) earns some sort of income from that and speaking fees. Gee, that sounds an awful lot like the way many consultants make a living today, with the possible exception of having to sign non-disclosure statements for the projects they work on.

It's ridiculous that people who never really bought into the Free Software Foundation's philosophy now complain about politicizing the GPL, or that GNU philosophy is not pragmatic, despite its obviously pragmatic benefits. I'm also curious as to how, when the FSF adds a clause and 'consults' the kernel development team as to whether they would be interested (as acknowledged by at least one developer), some developers accuse the FSF of "trying to tell them what to do with their code". Come on, guys. Either the FSF is trying to order you around, or they consulted you. Which is it? And weren't they trying to tell you what to do with your code when they first developed the GPL (to allow people to share it, for instance)?

Daniel Lyons, of Forbes, recently wrote of Stallman, "But then, Richard Stallman rarely is pragmatic--and in some ways he is downright bizarre." Rarely pragmatic? How can he say that about the man who wrote Copyleft: Pragmatic Idealism? And the GPL has proven to be rather pragmatic. Lyons goes on to point out that Stallman hasn't done much programming in the last 10 years. What he omits is that Stallman seems to have Carpel Tunnel Syndrome, which limits his ability to do much with a keyboard. He also calls into question some of Stallman's bizarre behavior, such as 'nasal sex', which is really nothing more than smelling flowers. Lyons, and anyone else, would be a fool not to see the humor in such antics.

Maybe Lyons isn't privy to all the gory details, but much of the history happened before I even knew what hacking was - and I still managed to discover a few key facts. I know that Stallman faces at least one medical condition that hinders his ability to develop. I know that Stallman has lived what he preaches. I also know that Stallman has an odd sense of humor. So what? Anyone who can watch a Monty Python movie ought to be able to laugh at Stallman's antics. Some people just don't have a sense of humor. The sad thing is that Stallman has never attacked his critics or opponents in such a vicious manner - not as far as I know. He has always focused clearly on the issues at hand.

The Real Issue

The real issue is not whether the FSF is a politically motivated group - we have known all along that they are. It is not whether Stallman is "weird", however you define that. It is not even about whether Stallman is trying to tell others what to do with their code - only the developers can choose the license, and that must be done on its merits. No, the real issue is whether the GPL, or any other license can effectively tackle the challenge of tivoization. We'll examine that in more depth in Part 2 of this discussion tomorrow.

» Read more about: Story Type: Editorial, LXer Features; Groups: Community, GNU

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
Small error in the last paragraph - users vs. developers license alisonken1 5 2,217 Nov 4, 2006 7:36 PM
well written purplewizard 25 1,954 Nov 1, 2006 1:26 PM
nice work, editerdood tuxchick 10 1,995 Nov 1, 2006 11:38 AM
So, exactly where did that driver run? dinotrac 3 2,026 Nov 1, 2006 9:34 AM

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