Signal and Noise in GPLv3: Page 2

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Torvalds also points out that the outspokenness common to FOSS projects is also very tempting for journalists who approach the issue with their minds already made up. As he points out, "it's easier and more common for a journalist to have a strong opinion [about GPLv3] than it would perhaps be in most other areas when it comes to Linux (Example: name your strong opinion on the new timer infrastructure). So, in that sense, I think things perhaps get a bit more skewed."

Torvalds does not say so himself, but, in his own case, he has often been used as a counter-figure to Richard M. Stallman, the FSF's founder and president. Superficially, Torvalds is a more outgoing and photogenic figure than the openly eccentric Stallman. More importantly, for all his innovation and leadership, Torvalds has the appearance of a Chief Technical Officer, a type that the mainstream computer media or business executives understand better than a maverick philosopher like Stallman. So, in seeking to discredit or question Stallman and ideas associated with him, business-oriented media tends to elevate Torvalds as an opposing figure and exaggerate differences between them. For instance, in a recent article, Torvald's implicit comparison of the FSF to authoritarian regimes was headlined rather than a comment in the same interview expressing his indifference to whether GPLv3 was used.

Even more basically, many journalists prefer to report on a conflict than an agreement. If a conflict does not exist, they are happy to invent one -- and the language of FOSS makes doing so extremely easy. Yet while the resulting articles may be more exciting than they would be if a different slant was taken, they do little to educate people who are trying to understand the actual issues.

Personalities and the Old Debates

What makes the distortions caused by the process and the media even harder to understand is the fact that GPLv3 has brought out not only manufactured but also genuine animosities in the FOSS communities – in particular the differences between free software and open source supporters. However, unlike the manufactured animosities, these differences are rarely articulated, instead, they operate behind the scenes more often than not.

Nine-tenths of the time, the two camps work together with little animosity. They use the same licenses and communal forms of organization, and often work together. Moreover, the two terms represent the two poles on a continuum that contains a variety of opinions, so whether a particular person is a free software or open source advocate is not always easy to determine. No wonder, then, that, to outsiders, the two positions appear virtually identical.

However, to members of the FOSS communities, the differences between the positions are profound. To free software supporters, sharing computer source code is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a means to extend the idea of freedom of expression, by allowing all users to participate in computing. By contrast, open source in its purest form advocates sharing source code out of the belief that doing so increases the quality of code and makes the idea of sharing more appealing to business.

The split between the two movements in the late 1990s was accompanied by considerable animosity, and, while the old feuds have largely died down, they still occasionally flare. In retrospect, it seems unsurprising that something as fundamental as revising the license most widely used by both camps should have revived the old disagreements.

For free software supporters, GPLv3, with its restrictions on third party distribution deals and TiVoization (the use of hardware to prevent the running of modified source code) are simply an extension of the logic of earlier versions of the license. Instead of being innovations, such provisions are simply efforts to block new ways that have been devised to get around the spirit of the license. As Stallman said to me, in explaining the motives behind GPLv3 last spring, "Any time we find some new threat to a user's freedom, we will try to block it and defend the users' freedom."

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