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Linux.SYS-CON.com Flashback to 2002: The "Stallman Factor"

The FSF wants to proclaim the good news of free software's benefits. Its tactics cause it to miss the mark

(Linux.SYS-CON.com) -- Richard Stallman is one of the best-known figures of the software revolution. Of all the other icons of the revolution, only Linus Torvalds shares the same kind of name recognition. Stallman wrote some of the most influential software of the age: tools like GCC and Emacs, which have had profound roles in the development of yet more free software. Linus Torvalds could not have written the Linux kernel without these tools. Perhaps as importantly, or maybe even more importantly, Stallman also crafted the GNU Public License: the license that guarantees the preservation of freedom in all its progeny.

Unfortunately, all that name recognition isn't due to popularity. Stallman remains the most controversial figure in a community of leaders who don't fit the norm. Think of the others in the group: Cox, Perens, and Raymond. To a man, they are outliers. They are not normal in IQ, speech, thought, or action. None of these men, however, evoke the same response as Stallman. Mention RMS in a Linux crowd and you'll find people who love him, hate him, and those who simply roll their eyes. People call him a whacko, egotist, genius, saint, and communist. Precious few are ambivalent about Richard Stallman.

The longest-running, highest-visibility feud in the open source/free software world appears to me to be Stallman's request that Linux be called GNU/Linux instead of merely Linux. Linus Torvalds said at first he went along with the notion, but now tells people to simply call it Linux. Stallman's attempt at cobranding, to borrow a marketing term, has long since begun to grate on the nerves of many. They see cobranding more as fodder for Stallman's ego than an attempt to set the record straight about what makes up an operating system and where many of Linux's components originated.

For what it's worth, I don't think Stallman is concerned about his ego. I see Stallman as a missionary with a message. His zeal for the freedom that comes with "free software" -- and his desire to protect the fruit of that freedom -- surpasses everything else including, at times, common sense.

When I interviewed Stallman in 1999 at the LWCE in San Jose, he made it clear to me he wanted Linux called GNU/Linux so people knew the role of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in Linux's history. When I mentioned I was afraid of slipping and calling it Linux during the interview, he said he wasn't concerned about me calling it that. After all, he explained, he knew I knew the real story. His concern was (and remains) getting the GNU story out to those who don't yet know it.

Case in point. The Linux user's group at the University of Texas currently calls itself "SIGLINUX." I say currently because the name has changed twice the past few months and appears ready to change again. Tami Friedmann, a local FSF activist, told SIGLINUX leadership last year Stallman might speak to SIGLINUX if it changed its name.

Jeff Strunk, president SIGLINUX, changed "SIGLINUX" to "SIGFREE" earlier this year. That change was short lived, however. SIGFREE didn't appear to satisfy the FSF, which wanted "Gnu/Linux" to be in the name. It also raised the ire of a number of SIGLINUX members who voiced their complaints on the SIGLINUX mailing list. Those unhappy with the change saw it as an application of the same type of force Microsoft uses when it exercises its monopoly muscle to bend users to its will. I don't believe this is the image the FSF wants to create for itself.

I spoke to Strunk last week. He knows no matter what he does, some will be unhappy. If he changes the name of the group to SIG-GNU/LINUX, people will complain. If he misses the opportunity to have Stallman speak to the group because he doesn't change the name, others will be unhappy. The FSF put Strunk between a rock and a hard place.

Freedom from ideology

The Stallman factor made an appearance on the Linux kernel mailing list (LKML) recently. Someone submitted a patch that would remove kernel documentation on how to submit patches to Torvalds in a BitKeeper-friendly format. Evidently, the patch submitter was offended that the Linux kernel, which is free software, carries an "advertisement" for a proprietary, un-free program like BitKeeper.

The patch brought about a spirited exchange including Torvalds and Daniel Phillips, who suggested many kernel developers were "silently seething" about Torvalds' use of a proprietary tool. If nothing else, Phillips gave Torvalds the opportunity to deliver a short lecture. Read carefully, there is much meat on these bones:

I would suggest that if you are silently seething about the fact that a commercial product can do something better than a free one, how about _doing_ something about it?

Quite frankly, I don't _want_ people using Linux for ideological reasons. I think ideology sucks. This world would be a much better place if people had less ideology, and a whole lot more "I do this because it's FUN and because others might find it useful, not because I got religion.

Would I prefer to use a tool that didn't have any restrictions on it for kernel maintenance? Yes. But since no such tool exists, and since I'm personally not very interested in writing one, _and_ since I don't have any hangups about using the right tool for the job, I use BitKeeper.

A day later, Alexander Viro posted a message on LKML that summed up software-related belief systems: The first similar to that voiced by Torvalds, the second for free software zealots, and the third for closed-source folk. At least that is how I see the divisions, and the points Viro made for each of them rang true.

The point that stuck with me, which seems to encapsulate the essence of the "Stallman factor, was in his closing. Viro said of those in the second category: "If you happen to believe in second variant, you have my condolence as long as you don't force your beliefs on everybody else. If you choose to emulate door-to-door pests and preachers -- don't expect to be treated differently."

It is time Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation take a harder look at what the tactics employed in Austin produce. The FSF wants to proclaim the good news of free software's benefits. FSF's tactics, however, cause it to miss the mark. Ill will, hurt feelings, and resentment are the natural byproducts of coercion. Requesting Linux groups change their name to GNU/Linux as a prerequisite to hearing Stallman speak is certainly within the FSF's right. It's also stupid and shortsighted. You cannot force people to share your beliefs, especially a community that values freedom as much as the Linux crowd.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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