LJ Archive

The Politics of Freedom

Phil Hughes

Issue #30, October 1996

In much the same way that the various political parties in the United States want to define what democracy really is, software politicians want to define what free software really is.

I like say it's back, but the reality is that it never went away. In much the same way that the various political parties in the United States want to define what democracy really is, software politicians want to define what free software really is.

While the majority of the users of free software (whether it be GPLed, public domain, BSD licensed or any of the other free classes of software) are happy to use it and appreciate that it exists, there is a minority who have their own political agenda. And the one at the top of the minority list is Richard M. Stallman (commonly known as RMS), creator of the Free Software Foundation.

Most Linux users are aware of the GNU project of the Free Software Foundation the people who have made a huge contribution to the Linux effort through the creation of programs like Emacs and gcc. But not many people know that the GNU project was supposed to turn out a complete Unix-like operating system, including a kernel called The Hurd.

RMS approached Linux Journal almost two years ago and told us that we should refer to what we call Linux as GNU/Linux. While we all recognize the contribution that the GNU project has made, we declined to make this change, as it is our job to report what is happening, not to create news (something that many other magazines along with newspapers and TV news programs could learn from).

Stallman's latest idea is to rename Linux as Lignux. (I would have included particulars from the opinion RMS wrote, but it is under a copyright that allows verbatim copying only, and it is longer than the space allotted here. The gist of his stated opinion is that the GNU project has been working for 12 years to make something like what Linux is today, that Linux is based on GNU, and that the GNU project was built from other free software including X Windows, TeX and BSD network utilities. He then concludes that these components together make up what is called the GNU system.

Using this same logic we could say that we have combined the GNU system, the Linux kernel and other free software to produce what is called the Linux system. If fact, we do say it.

What Went Wrong?

Perhaps RMS is frustrated because Linus got the glory for what RMS wanted to do. Linus managed to get more people working together for free to produce a commercial-grade finished product. While Linux didn't start out to be put under GPL license teRMS, Linus decided that was the right thing to do. Rms should see this as a serious conversion—it's like Linus found religion. Linux isn't a threat or a competitor; it is RMS's biggest success.

What's All the Fuss About?

Or, put another way, why am I taking up all this space to discuss this matter? Because a split between FSF-supporters and Linux-supporters just doesn't benefit anyone in the free software community. It doesn't benefit any consumers of software—free or otherwise. In fact, it only benefits companies like Microsoft.

I have been a supporter of the Free Software Foundation for years: SSC continues to sell FSF books (none of which have ever been profitable for us, but have helped the FSF), and I have little disagreement with what RMS has to say. However, I do have a problem when he feels that everyone has to believe exactly the same things he does. I want Bill Gates to yield to the pressure of a successful free software movement and make his software freely available, rather than let him watch the infighting in the free software community over which type of free software is best.

I see two driving forces that have made Linux a success: it's good, and it exemplifies the right attitude. While the BSD crowd has been busy with infighting, and the Free Software Foundation has been trying to define what 'free' really is, the Linux community has been writing code and building a complete and successful package.

This attitude is what has made commercial vendors see Linux as a viable platform for their products. We've seen you can't go wrong if you buy IBM and then you can't go wrong if you buy Microsoft. Neither of these may have been the best answer, but both were safe answers. Linux is becoming successful in commercial markets, because once again, it offers a safe answer.

While I don't have a formula that will make all this go away (so we can get back to development on the best operating system around that just happens to contain software from various sources including the Free Software Foundation), I would like to offer one final opinion; this one is from Darin Johnson's Usenet posting, where he says, heck, you can do whatever you want with my posting. I think it offers another way to look at what is happening:

Finally, to quote someone I think we all know: “Umm, this discussion has gone on quite long enough, thank you very much. It doesn't really matter what people call Linux, as long as credit is given where credit is due (on both sides). Personally, I'll very much continue to call it Linux.”

Relax, Linus—so will we.

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