Proprietary Firmware and the Pursuit of a Free Kernel: Page 3

Posted November 28, 2008

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

(Page 3 of 3)

Yet, as Richard Stallman, FSF founder and president, points out, including proprietary firmware at all is a violation of the GPL.

In fact, he points out that, "Strictly speaking, redistribution [of the standard kernel] violates the GPL. However, he points out that, in practice, "that violation has no effect: the copyright holders of Linux do not enforce the GPL against those who redistribute Linux with blobs, and might be unable to do so successfully after having themselves approved the inclusion of the blobs."

Still, in Stallman's view, having separate firmware package "does nothing to address the ethical problem of their presence in the GNU/Linux distribution or their installation in your machine."

p> For Stallman, the situation "is an example of how those who do not value freedom highly tend to lose it." In his view, by not guarding against proprietary intrusions into the kernel or its drivers, open source supporters are betraying the promise of the licenses they use and the communities of which they are a part.


Such objections are unlikely to sway those who do not already hold free software views. Perhaps the arguments that would be most convincing to Oliva and Stallman's opposition are the practical ones that Oliva makes in passing -- finding all these solutions, Oliva points out, is a lot more work than shipping a linux-libre kernel.

He adds, "I really can't figure out why distros want so badly to undertake part of the costs of maintaining and distributing the firmware, costs that the hardware vendors are dumping on the community." In comparison, those on the open source side have yet to suggest an ideal reason why free software supporters should support shipping the blobs or the attempted compromise.

Still, in the end, neither side is likely to convince the other, because they are arguing from irreconcilable starting points. The compromise of a separate firmware package may continue for other reasons, but it is unlikely to stop the debate. Those who want to remove all proprietary elements are probably a minority, but they are a large minority, articulate and committed, and unlikely to abandon the idea of reshaping the distributions in which they are involved to fit their ideals.

And while you might wonder at the energy going into the debate, especially if you are not a developer, one thing is clear: The debate over firmware is still some ways from being settled.

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Tags: open source, Linux, developer, kernel

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