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Leading items and editorials

Is the GPL really less business-friendly? As long as there is free software (which will be a very long time), there will be license debates that go with it. Different people have very different goals when they release software, and the licenses they use will attempt to reflect those goals. So we will continue to see different licenses in use.

The two most common free software licenses out there are the GNU General Public License (GPL) and the whole set of BSD-like licenses. They differ in a number of respects, but the core difference between the two comes down to one thing:

  • The GPL does not allow changes in the terms of the license that would restrict the rights of others. BSD-like licenses, instead, allow code to be redistributed under other, more restrictive licensing terms.

The BSD license has often been touted as being more friendly to business interests, since it allows companies to create proprietary products from (previously) free code. Few people have questioned that assessment.

It is worth thinking for a moment about why a company releases code. In general, a code release happens because the person or company releasing it wants to see that code find users and be successful. The hope is that free code will attract users, be improved, and generally thrive. Those who released the code then hope to benefit from its greater popularity.

The code, along with those who work with it, benefits every time somebody contributes an improvement. If somebody adds to the code and takes the result proprietary, instead, the users of the code as a whole lose. Companies in particular need to fear the possibility of a competitor using their code to produce a value-added, proprietary version. But those who take code proprietary pay a cost too, since their work can not benefit from the free software process.

Suppose your company has made a powerful enhancement to a BSD-licensed program. The choice must now be made: should that enhancement be contributed back under that same license, or should it be kept proprietary? Keeping it proprietary greatly reduces the value of that code, since it can not participate in the free software process. But releasing it risks helping a competitor who will not return the favor. It's a classic example of the prisoner's dilemma - a system where seemingly rational behavior brings about a poor result for everybody involved.

And herein lies the value of the GPL in this situation: it takes away the prisoner's dilemma. A company that releases code under the GPL need not fear what its competitors will do - the risk of competing against proprietary enhancements is gone.

As an extreme example, think about what a Microsoft Linux distribution would look like, and compare it to what MS-BSD could be.

There will never be a single license that works in every situation, and neither license can be said to be superior to the other. They are both free software licenses. But the GPL may well win out in the hard calculations that go into farsighted business decisions.

Review: The Book of Linux Music & Sound. In a long-overdue update to our Book Reviews page, we present this review of The Book of Linux Music & Sound. The book is written by Dave Phillips, and is the first in the Linux Journal Press imprint published by No Starch Press. It goes a long way toward filling in the void in Linux audio documentation, and provides a wonderful catalog of the wealth of audio software available for Linux. Beginning audio users, however, will find that it is relatively short on entry-level information.

The fun patent of the week, as pointed out at the Embedded Systems Conference: Hewlett-Packard has a patent on embedded web servers. This patent, which was filed in October, 1996, covers the idea of having a device interoperate through the use of a standard, public protocol. HP, thus far, has made no move to enforce this patent.

The Red Hat Network launches. At the same time that it announced a new major release of its distribution (covered on this week's Distributions page), Red Hat announced the launch of the "Red Hat Network." This offering is the latest in a series of attempts by Red Hat to shift its revenue model in the direction of services. As such, it's an indicator of where the distributors are likely to go in the future with regard to supporting their products.

So what does the Red Hat Network offer? At the current time, customers get:

  • A package update service. Options vary from simply getting a notification that an updated package exists through to having packages automatically downloaded and installed.

  • Online tracking of registered systems. Administrators, for example, can get a list of which of their systems are affected by a package update.

  • An array of support services, many of which appear to be "community based."

  • A web-based interface to the whole thing.
Future features include active system monitoring, security checks, product discounts, web-based application configuration tools, and more.

Looking at the offering, a number of interesting questions come up. With regard to the package update service, there appears to be little there that is new. Any Debian user will laugh at the idea of automated updates being an innovative service. But the real question might be: is it going to get harder to get package information and updates out of Red Hat without giving them a credit card number? Red Hat responds quickly to problems, but its "redhat-watch" list tends to deliver alerts days late, and Red Hat's free FTP servers are hard to get into in the best of times. As Red Hat tries to push customers into the Network offering, that situation is unlikely to improve.

The system tracking feature means that Red Hat maintains an online database of the configuration of all its customers' systems. One can only hope that both their privacy policy and security practices are robust. A database of systems, their configurations, and their current security vulnerabilities is going to be a tempting target.

Nonetheless, the Network service is likely to be of interest to a number of customers. It will be interesting to see the extent to which Linux users go for this sort of offering - it will tell a lot about how likely the service-oriented Linux offerings of the future are to succeed.

The open source panel debate at ESC. LWN's Forrest Cook was at the Embedded Systems Conference panel entitled "The Open Source Movement: Boon or Bane for Embedded Developers?" Quite a bit of interesting conversation took place between proponents of open source and proprietary solutions to embedded systems problems. Have a look at LWN's report for a summary of how the event went.

Inside this week's Linux Weekly News:

  • Security: Intel open sources CDSA while Network ICE's Altivore gets a peek, the Privacy Foundation purrs about :CueCat, and SDMI - success or failure?
  • Kernel: Where to find prepatches; new VM growing pains; Linux on the GS320
  • Distributions: Red Hat 7 arrives; a new distribution for multimedia, LinuxPPC security updates
  • Development: Development rules for Tcl and Python; Perl's Inline module
  • Commerce: Red Hat, Lineo, LinuxOne, a busy week.
  • Back page: Linux links, this week in Linux history, and letters to the editor
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

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September 28, 2000


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