Welcome!

Linux Containers Authors: Elizabeth White, Yeshim Deniz, Liz McMillan, Pat Romanski, Amit Gupta

Related Topics: Linux Containers

Linux Containers: Article

Linux, GNU, and freedom

Richard Stallman responds to Joe Barr's account of the FSF's dealings with the Austin Linux users group

(LinuxWorld) -- Since Joe Barr's article criticized my dealings with SIGLINUX, I would like to set the record straight about what actually occurred, and state my reasons.

When SIGLINUX invited me to speak, it was a "Linux User Group"; that is, a group for users of the GNU/Linux system which calls the whole system "Linux". So I replied politely that if they'd like someone from the GNU Project to give a speech for them, they ought to treat the GNU Project right, and call the system "GNU/Linux". The system is a variant of GNU, and the GNU Project is its principal developer, so social convention says to call it by the name we chose. Unless there are powerful reasons for an exception, I usually decline to give speeches for organizations that won't give GNU proper credit in this way. I respect their freedom of speech, but I also have the freedom not to give a speech.

Subsequently, Jeff Strunk of SIGLINUX tried to change the group's policy, and asked the FSF to list his group in our page of GNU/Linux user groups. Our webmaster told him that we would not list it under the name "SIGLINUX" because that name implies that the group is about Linux. Strunk proposed to change the name to "SIGFREE", and our webmaster agreed that would be fine. (Barr's article said we rejected this proposal.) However, the group ultimately decided to stay with "SIGLINUX".

At that point, the matter came to my attention again, and I suggested they consider other possible names. There are many names they could choose that would not call the system "Linux", and I hope they will come up with one they like. There the matter rests as far as I know.

Is it true, as Barr writes, that some people see these actions as an "application of force" comparable with Microsoft's monopoly power? Probably so. Declining an invitation is not coercion, but people who are determined to believe that the entire system is "Linux" sometimes develop amazingly distorted vision. To make that name appear justified, they must see molehills as mountains and mountains as molehills. If you can ignore the facts and believe that Linus Torvalds developed the whole system starting in 1991, or if you can ignore your ordinary principles of fairness and believe that Torvalds should get the sole credit even though he didn't do that, it's a small step to believe that I owe you a speech when you ask.

Just consider: the GNU Project starts developing an operating system, and years later Linus Torvalds adds one important piece. The GNU Project says, "Please give our project equal mention," but Linus says, "Don't give them a share of the credit; call the whole thing after my name alone!" Now envision the mindset of a person who can look at these events and accuse the GNU Project of egotism. It takes strong prejudice to misjudge so drastically.

A person who is that prejudiced can say all sorts of unfair things about the GNU Project and think them justified; his fellows will support him, because they want each other's support in maintaining their prejudice. Dissenters can be reviled; thus, if I decline to participate in an activity under the rubric of "Linux", they may find that inexcusable, and holds me responsible for the ill will they feel afterwards. When so many people want me to call the system "Linux", how can I, who merely launched its development, not comply? And forcibly denying them a speech is forcibly making them unhappy. That's coercion, as bad as Microsoft!

Now, you might wonder why I don't just duck the issue and avoid all this grief. When SIGLINUX invited me to speak, I could simply have said "No, sorry" and the matter would have ended there. Why didn't I do that? I'm willing to take the risk of being abused personally in order to have a chance of correcting the error that undercuts the GNU Project's efforts.

Calling this variant of the GNU system "Linux" plays into the hands of people who choose their software based only on technical advantage, not caring whether it respects their freedom. There are people like Barr, that want their software "free from ideology" and criticize anyone that says freedom matters. There are people like Torvalds that will pressure our community into use of a non-free program, and challenge anyone who complains to provide a (technically) better program immediately or shut up. There are people who say that technical decisions should not be "politicized" by consideration of their social consequences.

In the 70s, computer users lost the freedoms to redistribute and change software because they didn't value their freedom. Computer users regained these freedoms in the 80s and 90s because a group of idealists, the GNU Project, believed that freedom is what makes a program better, and were willing to work for what we believed in.

We have partial freedom today, but our freedom is not secure. It is threatened by the CBDTPA (formerly SSSCA), by the Broadcast "Protection" Discussion Group (see http://www.eff.org/) which proposes to prohibit free software to access digital TV broadcasts, by software patents (Europe is now considering whether to have software patents), by Microsoft nondisclosure agreements for vital protocols, and by everyone who tempts us with a non-free program that is "better" (technically) than available free programs. We can lose our freedom again just as we lost it the first time, if we don't care enough to protect it.

Will enough of us care? That depends on many things; among them, how much influence the GNU Project has, and how much influence Linus Torvalds has. The GNU Project says, "Value your freedom!" Joe Barr says, "Choose between non-free and free programs on technical grounds alone!" If people credit Torvalds as the main developer of the GNU/Linux system, that's not just inaccurate, it also makes his message more influential--and that message says, "Non-free software is ok; I use it and develop it myself." If they recognize our role, they will listen to us more, and the message we will give them is, "This system exists because of people who care about freedom. Join us, value your freedom, and together we can preserve it." See http://www.gnu.org/gnu/the-gnu-project.html for the history.

When I ask people to call the system GNU/Linux, some of them respond with silly excuses and straw men. But we probably haven't lost anything, because they were probably unfriendly to begin with. Meanwhile, other people recognize the reasons I give, and use that name. By doing so, they help make other people aware of why the GNU/Linux system really exists, and that increases our ability to spread the idea that freedom is an important value.

This is why I keep butting my head against bias, calumny, and grief. They hurt my feelings, but when successful, this effort helps the GNU Project campaign for freedom.

Since this came up in the context of Linux (the kernel) and Bitkeeper, the non-free version control system that Linus Torvalds now uses, I'd like to address that issue as well.

Bitkeeper issue

The use of Bitkeeper for the Linux sources has a grave effect on the free software community, because anyone who wants to closely track patches to Linux can only do it by installing that non-free program. There must be dozens or even hundreds of kernel hackers who have done this. Most of them are gradually convincing themselves that it is ok to use non-free software, in order to avoid a sense of cognitive dissonance about the presence of Bitkeeper on their machines. What can be done about this?

One solution is to set up another repository for the Linux sources, using CVS or another free version control system, and arranging to load new versions into it automatically. This could use Bitkeeper to access the latest revisions, then install the new revisions into CVS. That update process could run automatically and frequently.

The FSF cannot do this, because we cannot install Bitkeeper on our machines. We have no non-free systems or applications on them now, and our principles say we must keep it that way. Operating this repository would have to be done by someone else who is willing to have Bitkeeper on his machine, unless someone can find or make a way to do it using free software.

The Linux sources themselves have an even more serious problem with non-free software: they actually contain some. Quite a few device drivers contain series of numbers that represent firmware programs to be installed in the device. These programs are not free software. A few numbers to be deposited into device registers are one thing; a substantial program in binary is another.

The presence of these binary-only programs in "source" files of Linux creates a secondary problem: it calls into question whether Linux binaries can legally be redistributed at all. The GPL requires "complete corresponding source code," and a sequence of integers is not the source code. By the same token, adding such a binary to the Linux sources violates the GPL.

The Linux developers have a plan to move these firmware programs into separate files; it will take a few years to mature, but when completed it will solve the secondary problem; we could make a "free Linux" version that doesn't have the non-free firmware files. That by itself won't do much good if most people use the non-free "official" version of Linux. That may well occur, because on many platforms the free version won't run without the non-free firmware. The "free Linux" project will have to figure out what the firmware does and write source code for it, perhaps in assembler language for whatever embedded processor it runs on. It's a daunting job. It would be less daunting if we had done it little by little over the years, rather than letting it mount up. In recruiting people to do this job, we will have to overcome the idea, spread by some Linux developers, that the job is not necessary.

Linux, the kernel, is often thought of as the flagship of free software, yet its current version is partially non-free. How did this happen? This problem, like the decision to use Bitkeeper, reflects the attitude of the original developer of Linux, a person who thinks that "technically better" is more important than freedom.

Value your freedom, or you will lose it, teaches history. "Don't bother us with politics," respond those who don't want to learn.

Copyright 2002 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

More Stories By Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman is the founder of the Gnu Project, launched in 1984 to develop the free operating system GNU (an acronym for "GNU's Not Unix"), and thereby give computer users the freedom that most of them have lost. GNU is free software: everyone is free to copy it and redistribute it, as well as to make changes either large or small. He is the principal or initial author of GNU Emacs, the GNU C Compiler, the GNU Debugger GDB and parts of other packages. He is also president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

Any copyright notice in his articles supersedes all copyright notices on the SYS-CON and Ulitzer sites.

Comments (0)

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


@ThingsExpo Stories
SYS-CON Events announced today that MIRAI Inc. will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. MIRAI Inc. are IT consultants from the public sector whose mission is to solve social issues by technology and innovation and to create a meaningful future for people.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Dasher Technologies will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Dasher Technologies, Inc. ® is a premier IT solution provider that delivers expert technical resources along with trusted account executives to architect and deliver complete IT solutions and services to help our clients execute their goals, plans and objectives. Since 1999, we'v...
SYS-CON Events announced today that NetApp has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. NetApp is the data authority for hybrid cloud. NetApp provides a full range of hybrid cloud data services that simplify management of applications and data across cloud and on-premises environments to accelerate digital transformation. Together with their partners, NetApp emp...
SYS-CON Events announced today that IBM has been named “Diamond Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st Cloud Expo, which will take place on October 31 through November 2nd 2017 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, California.
SYS-CON Events announced today that TidalScale, a leading provider of systems and services, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. TidalScale has been involved in shaping the computing landscape. They've designed, developed and deployed some of the most important and successful systems and services in the history of the computing industry - internet, Ethernet, operating s...
Infoblox delivers Actionable Network Intelligence to enterprise, government, and service provider customers around the world. They are the industry leader in DNS, DHCP, and IP address management, the category known as DDI. We empower thousands of organizations to control and secure their networks from the core-enabling them to increase efficiency and visibility, improve customer service, and meet compliance requirements.
SYS-CON Events announced today that IBM has been named “Diamond Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st Cloud Expo, which will take place on October 31 through November 2nd 2017 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, California.
Join IBM November 1 at 21st Cloud Expo at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, and learn how IBM Watson can bring cognitive services and AI to intelligent, unmanned systems. Cognitive analysis impacts today’s systems with unparalleled ability that were previously available only to manned, back-end operations. Thanks to cloud processing, IBM Watson can bring cognitive services and AI to intelligent, unmanned systems. Imagine a robot vacuum that becomes your personal assistant tha...
In a recent survey, Sumo Logic surveyed 1,500 customers who employ cloud services such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP). According to the survey, a quarter of the respondents have already deployed Docker containers and nearly as many (23 percent) are employing the AWS Lambda serverless computing framework. It’s clear: serverless is here to stay. The adoption does come with some needed changes, within both application development and operations. Tha...
In his Opening Keynote at 21st Cloud Expo, John Considine, General Manager of IBM Cloud Infrastructure, will lead you through the exciting evolution of the cloud. He'll look at this major disruption from the perspective of technology, business models, and what this means for enterprises of all sizes. John Considine is General Manager of Cloud Infrastructure Services at IBM. In that role he is responsible for leading IBM’s public cloud infrastructure including strategy, development, and offering ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Avere Systems, a leading provider of enterprise storage for the hybrid cloud, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Avere delivers a more modern architectural approach to storage that doesn't require the overprovisioning of storage capacity to achieve performance, overspending on expensive storage media for inactive data or the overbui...
Widespread fragmentation is stalling the growth of the IIoT and making it difficult for partners to work together. The number of software platforms, apps, hardware and connectivity standards is creating paralysis among businesses that are afraid of being locked into a solution. EdgeX Foundry is unifying the community around a common IoT edge framework and an ecosystem of interoperable components.
SYS-CON Events announced today that TidalScale will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. TidalScale is the leading provider of Software-Defined Servers that bring flexibility to modern data centers by right-sizing servers on the fly to fit any data set or workload. TidalScale’s award-winning inverse hypervisor technology combines multiple commodity servers (including their ass...
SYS-CON Events announced today that N3N will exhibit at SYS-CON's @ThingsExpo, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. N3N’s solutions increase the effectiveness of operations and control centers, increase the value of IoT investments, and facilitate real-time operational decision making. N3N enables operations teams with a four dimensional digital “big board” that consolidates real-time live video feeds alongside IoT sensor data a...
As hybrid cloud becomes the de-facto standard mode of operation for most enterprises, new challenges arise on how to efficiently and economically share data across environments. In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Dr. Allon Cohen, VP of Product at Elastifile, will explore new techniques and best practices that help enterprise IT benefit from the advantages of hybrid cloud environments by enabling data availability for both legacy enterprise and cloud-native mission critical applications. By rev...
With major technology companies and startups seriously embracing Cloud strategies, now is the perfect time to attend 21st Cloud Expo October 31 - November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center, CA, and June 12-14, 2018, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, and learn what is going on, contribute to the discussions, and ensure that your enterprise is on the right path to Digital Transformation.
Join IBM November 1 at 21st Cloud Expo at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, and learn how IBM Watson can bring cognitive services and AI to intelligent, unmanned systems. Cognitive analysis impacts today’s systems with unparalleled ability that were previously available only to manned, back-end operations. Thanks to cloud processing, IBM Watson can bring cognitive services and AI to intelligent, unmanned systems. Imagine a robot vacuum that becomes your personal assistant th...
Digital transformation is changing the face of business. The IDC predicts that enterprises will commit to a massive new scale of digital transformation, to stake out leadership positions in the "digital transformation economy." Accordingly, attendees at the upcoming Cloud Expo | @ThingsExpo at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, Oct 31-Nov 2, will find fresh new content in a new track called Enterprise Cloud & Digital Transformation.
Most technology leaders, contemporary and from the hardware era, are reshaping their businesses to do software. They hope to capture value from emerging technologies such as IoT, SDN, and AI. Ultimately, irrespective of the vertical, it is about deriving value from independent software applications participating in an ecosystem as one comprehensive solution. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Kausik Sridhar, founder and CTO of Pulzze Systems, will discuss how given the magnitude of today's applicati...
Smart cities have the potential to change our lives at so many levels for citizens: less pollution, reduced parking obstacles, better health, education and more energy savings. Real-time data streaming and the Internet of Things (IoT) possess the power to turn this vision into a reality. However, most organizations today are building their data infrastructure to focus solely on addressing immediate business needs vs. a platform capable of quickly adapting emerging technologies to address future ...