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Leading items and editorials

A big anniversary arrives. Picking the true birthday of Linux is not necessarily an easy task - what date would you choose? The first gleam in Linus's eye is probably too early, and nobody really knows when that was. The 1.0 release, of course, would be far too late. Where, in between, was Linux really born?

One date favored by many is August 25, 1991, when Linus first told the world, via the comp.os.minix newsgroup, that he was putting together a kernel.

I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu) for 386(486) AT clones. This has been brewing since april, and is starting to get ready.

Linus clearly had not set his sights on World Domination quite yet.

Quite a bit of interest was generated by the above posting, even though no code was released (that happened on October 5). The world was clearly ready for a widely available free operating system. The growth of Linus's "just a hobby" over the last ten years has been truly phenomenal - and we have just begun. Linux has changed the world. It's been a great decade; the next will be even better.

Let's all beat up on Richard Stallman. LWN editor Liz Coolbaugh once found herself seated next to Richard Stallman for dinner at some conference. It turned out not to be one of the most pleasant experiences of her life; there was no way to bring an end to the discussion of whether this publication should change its name to the GNU/Linux Weekly News. Mr. Stallman is nothing if not tenacious.

He is also endlessly controversial. It is generally not surprising to other supporters of free software speaking out against him. This week, however, has been notable even on the RMS scale.

Consider, for example, the release notes for glibc 2.2.4. A minor C library release normally wouldn't draw a great deal of attention; there's not much in the way of exciting new features, and most people avoid upgrading glibc unless they really have to. But most point releases of glibc don't come with comments like:

Stallman recently tried what I would call a hostile takeover of the glibc development. He tried to conspire behind my back and persuade the other main developers to take control so that in the end he is in control and can dictate whatever pleases him....

The morale of this is that people will hopefully realize what a control freak and raging manic Stallman is. Don't trust him. As soon as something isn't in line with his view he'll stab you in the back.

Those would be fighting words.

The motivations behind an attempted Stallman takeover of glibc development are somewhat unclear. Some of it has to do, apparently, with the adoption of version 2.1 of the LGPL, with its references to "...the whole GNU operating system, as well as its variant, the GNU/Linux operating system." It could also have been motivated by a desire for less conflict with glibc maintainer Ulrich Drepper, who is also not always considered to be one of the easiest people to get along with. Unless Mr. Stallman acknowledges that this "hostile takeover" attempt truly happened, and explains his reasoning, it will be hard to understand what is really going on.

Richard Stallman does show signs, however, of wishing that his revolution had not gotten away from him. Free software has been more successful than many of us could have ever hoped, and Richard Stallman deserves much of the credit for that success. But much of the work has been done outside of the GNU project's organization since the beginning, and the proportion of non-GNU work is only increasing. Richard Stallman remains the head of the Free Software Foundation, but, if the larger Linux and free software movement has a head at all, it's not him.

That can be expected to hurt some. But, if you are trying to head up a movement or a community, you are playing a seriously political game, and political games are like that. Mr. Stallman might be well advised to let go of some of those ambitions, if he has them, not try to direct the development of our free system, and put his efforts into endeavors where we still truly need him.

Should we be talking about freedom? The O'Reilly Network site has been running a little debate on software and freedom. The sequence so far has been:

  1. Freedom Zero, by Tim O'Reilly. "Freedom Zero for me is to offer the fruit of your work on the terms that work for you"

  2. Freedom or Power? by Bradley Kuhn and Richard Stallman. "In the world that O'Reilly proposes, a few make the basic software decisions for everyone. That is power, not freedom."

  3. Tim O'Reilly's response to the above. "I want to return to the idea of freedom zero as my choice as a creator to give, or not to give, the fruits of my work to you, as a 'user' of that work, and for you, as a user, to accept or reject the terms I place on that gift. If that is power, so be it."
It's an interesting discussion. We also, now, have Eric Raymond's contribution to the discussion which takes a strong stance of its own:

In other words, Stallman and Kuhn want to be able to make decisions that affect other developers more than themselves. By the definition they themselves have proposed, they want power.

The bulk of the response, however, takes a different tack:

Some words (like "freedom") make this kind of semantic ping-pong game way too easy. They obfuscate more than they enlighten, they cloud the issues rather than clearing the air. This is a major reason I have spent the last three years trying to get open-source developers to stop talking about "freedom".

Reasonable people may differ on what balance creates the greatest degree of freedom. The unreasonable people have their opinions too, of course, but it's not clear they know more than anybody else. There is a claim LWN would like to put forward, however, made up of two parts:

  1. The concept of freedom is a crucial, inseparable part of what makes the free software movement vital and important. It may make life easier to sweep the concept under the rug at times, but that is a temptation that should be resisted.

  2. Richard Stallman has been one of our most articulate, vocal, and persistent proponents of software freedom for almost two decades. It is important that he not stop.
Code will have an increasing amount of control and influence in our lives. And, increasingly, the amount of freedom we all have will depend, partly, on how free that software is. When we communicate with each other, authenticate ourselves to somebody, or vote, we want to be using free software. Getting and maintaining that freedom will not be easy; it will not even be possible if freedom disappears as a topic of discussion.

Richard Stallman, certainly, should not be our only proponent of freedom. His approach is polemic and unyielding; he is a fundamentalist. But his is a voice that must continue to be heard. His efforts will keep freedom on the agenda and will counter the tendency of more moderate groups to compromise too much. Richard Stallman's point of view belongs in our debates.

That said, there's certainly plenty of room to disagree with what he says; LWN readers know that this publication has no objection to the existence of proprietary software, for example, even if we choose not to use it. The term "freedom" certainly means, as Eric Raymond says, different things to different people. But that doesn't mean we should avoid discussion of the term; why should we hide disagreements over something so fundamental? It's far better to get the viewpoints out on the table so that members of the community can make their own conclusions.

Dmitry Sklyarov's pretrial hearing (arraignment) was originally scheduled for August 23, but was postponed. Definitive information is still lacking, but it appears that his defense is negotiating for a dropping of the charges, and asked for the delay so that the negotiations could continue. The new hearing date appears to be August 30; see the EFF advisory for more information and a nice statement from Dmitry.

Those of you attending LinuxWorld should consider attending the protest march which has been scheduled for August 30. It starts at the Moscone center, so it should be easy for attendees to find, and proceeds to the Federal Building. This is an opportunity to generate a large turnout and draw a great deal of attention to Dmitry Sklyarov's situation and the DMCA in general.

The LinuxWorld Conference and Expo starts on August 28 in San Francisco. It will, as always, be an interesting event; LWN's Michael Hammel and Dennis Tenney will be there in both speaking and reporting roles. Stay tuned for our coverage from the conference.

Inside this LWN.net weekly edition:

  • Security: AirSnort, a new ssh attack, a new sendmail bug.
  • Kernel: Mutating min() and max(); network entropy.
  • Distributions: Compatibility between Linux distributions; Debian Linux for BeOS refugees.
  • On the Desktop: End user configuration management, Vector tool queries.
  • Development: The D language, FreeGIS updates, new ELC directors, new CUPS and Omni, license quickref, GCC 3.0.1.
  • Commerce: Boxed Penguin, Caldera to open source benchmarks, awk, and grep, Lineo gets $20M, Intel compilers for Linux.
  • History: The Linux Standards Association and trademarks; Linux-Mandrake's first year; MPAA won the first round of the DVD case.
  • Letters: The long reach of U.S. laws.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

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August 23, 2001


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