Signal and Noise in GPLv3: Page 4

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In the same way, asked by me in an email whether user freedom or software quality was more important, Torvalds (after dismissing the question as "stupid" and "moronic") replied with his own question: "In science, is it more important to empower humans or share information?"

Then Torvalds answered his own question by adding, "The question makes no sense. Science clearly does empower humans. The same is true of open source. It's not about ‘sharing information’ per se: that's just a small part of it -- it's a part of the tools to create better software. What matters most is that people are interested, and have their own agenda, and, in doing so, and trying to improve their own situation, they often accidentally end up improving somebody else's life, too."

The old animosities and debates are impassioned, but, in the end, the free software and open source supporters are less different than they appear. When it comes to GPLv3, focusing on those differences simply becomes another barrier to the understanding, and is unlikely to produce any useful insights.

A Matter of Philosophy

So are all the disagreements over GPLv3 simply a matter of distractions? Not at all. Instead, I suggest that they come down to even more basic differences in philosophy -- not about free software and open source, but about protecting freedoms and different views of humanity.

For the FSF, the freedom of expression that sharing source code makes possible must be safeguarded by preventing what its members see an effort to undermine or even overthrow it. This is the approach of Jean-Paul Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew when he maintains that the one freedom that cannot be supported is the freedom to use your freedom to destroy that of others. It is the same view that puts limits on free speech by outlawing incitements to hatred, or falsely crying "Fire" in a crowded theater.

Against this position, Torvalds argued that freedom of choice must be absolute, and that those who attempt to limit it -- even a well-intentioned one like the FSF's -- are "stupid, distasteful, and intellectually dishonest," in that they act immorally while claiming to act morally. What matters to Torvalds is not whether someone uses source code then prevents others from modifying and running it themselves, but that they share their work. To Torvalds, by moving against TiVoization, the FSF is trying "to hobble science by saying that they won't share information with people they dislike" -- a position he dismisses as one held that could only be held by "an obvious crackpot and idiot."

From another perspective, the FSF is acting on the assumption that a change in the license can cause people to behave differently. However, on the kernel mailing-list, Torvalds argues that "Only religious fanatics and totalitarian states equate morality with legality," and that the FSF is "putting the cart before the horse." Instead, Torvalds wrote in an email to me that if everyone is allowed to focus on their self-interest without restrictions, then others will benefit as well, particularly in areas such as science and FOSS.

Which of these views is more accurate is, of course, a matter of opinion rather than proof. But what matters here is that they are not a difference in goals so much as a difference in means. What most outsiders interpret as rabid hatred is often the outspokeness of people dealing with the core issues of their life's work. Real animosities exist, yet they rarely seem to get in the way of co-operation or shared interests.

It also means that, if you want to find how GPLv3 may affect your business, the last place you should go is the average media source, or even a mailing list that an article draws upon. Unless you have regular exposure to the sort of language that is used in discussions about GPLv3 among those to whom it matters the most, you will almost certainly over-estimate the level of animosity. Instead, read the license yourself, and contact either the FSF's compliance lab or the Software Freedom Law Center with questions. And if the license seems to require some absurdity like opening all your patents to the public, as some have claimed, do a reality check by remembering that corporations like IBM and Sun Microsystems had a voice in the wording, and ask yourself whether such corporations would actually agree to such terms.

For better or worse, the FSF has released GPLv3, and projects are slowly converting to it -- to date, 260, according to Palamida's information site about GPLv3 adoption. This is a relatively small number compared to the tens of thousands of FOSS projects, but the license is new, and the number is only going to grow. And it seems likely that, at some point, even holdouts like Torvalds and the Linux kernel developers are going to have to confront the new license version, if only in the form of dual licensing. At this point, we're all overdue to stop listening to the noise and start listening to the message itself.

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