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Does Ubuntu Contribute its Share to Free Software Projects?: Page 3

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Perhaps the commercialization of free software is partly to blame. The argument, after all, centers on two companies that work with free software. According to Neary, volunteers made 5% more contributions to GNOME than Red Hat, so you could argue by the same logic that was used in the argument that Red Hat is therefore taking advantage of the community. Yet, so far as I have seen, nobody is making that argument. Not that flame wars don't happen frequently within the community, but could the tribalism that Shuttleworth decries be so intense because profit is involved?

More importantly, the two sides in this argument represent two very different views about what constitutes good citizenship among free software developers.

Partly, as Dylan McCall suggests, GNOME "can’t, as a community, decide whether they like the idea of external projects building new environments on the Gnome platform. . . . I think there’s one camp that thinks Gnome should be a user-facing product, with its own special branding and its own distinctive look that everything ships in pristine condition . . . . Then there’s another camp that sees Gnome as a starting point with lots of handy tools (and common modules) for distributions to build operating systems. . . . That first camp sees Gnome as a monolithic project; only internal work is worthy. The latter camp sees Gnome as something akin to GNU."

However, the issue goes far beyond GNOME, and into the unspoken traditions of free software in general. Traditionally, the place for distributions to make changes is upstream -- that is, in the component projects themselves. I remember, for instance, when I was working on Progeny Debian ten years ago that when the question of whether the company had the right to make changes to GNOME within the distribution (instead of contributing those changes to the GNOME project) the issued seemed important enough that we spent an afternoon discussing it.

Good free software citizens, the argument went, should make their modifications available for everyone to share. Progeny only went ahead with the changes after a survey revealed that what we were doing was already considered acceptable within the community.

But that is exactly what Canonical and Ubuntu have not done in recent years. In the rush to increase usability and to move towards profitability, Canonical has not been waiting to contribute its changes in notifications or title bar buttons or anything else back to GNOME.

Instead, Canonical has pushed ahead with its changes while keeping them within the Ubuntu distribution. It has every right to do so, of course. And perhaps its efforts will, in the end, redefine the degree of unilateral changes that are acceptable in a distribution. Meanwhile, though, the response that such efforts provoke should not be surprising, especially from those like Red Hat that have generally been more careful about contributing changes upstream.

Behind DeKoenigsberg's anger and the responses from Canonical lies, if not a cultural clash, then a clash of changing values. The argument itself hardly matters, but the values on each side and -- more importantly -- which prevails could wind up mattering far more than who was right or wrong.


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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, Gnome, Shuttleworth


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