Is Linux FOSS or open source?

Summary:FOSS activist Alex Oliva says GPL Linux is actually open core, which he terms "free bait."

The Linux offered under the GPL carries a few surprises under the hood.

Specifically it contains some drivers and adapters whose use is restricted, through language in the code, to regular use with specific hardware.

To Brazilian FOSS activist Alex Oliva (right) this violates FOSS principles to such an extent that it renders Linux open core.

Actually he has a more loaded term for it -- "free bait."

One could argue that Oliva is selling something other than a concept here and you would be right. He's the maintainer of Linux-Libre, a version of the kernel that strips out these "non-free" components.

Maybe he's right. Maybe Oliva is pure as the driven snow while Linux is just Ivory Snow. (One of my high school phys-ed teachers once chased diapered kids blindfolded in a commercial so he could utter the tag line "99 and 44 one hundredths percent pure." )

But what if he is? Fact is there are companies like Keyspan and Broadcom that are so paranoid they want some legal protection in the code base, and so naive they think that will change behavior. The Linux Foundation has decided that access to this code, enabling Linux to run with specific peripherals, was worth the compromise.

I agree.

Another important point is that Oliva is deliberately conflating FLOSS and open source. I made that mistake on first taking this beat, and Richard Stallman personally set me straight, so let me pay that forward.

Free, Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) is not at all the same as open source. FLOSS accepts no compromise with its copyleft principles. Stallman firmly believes that "freedom isn't free," meaning it carries obligations, like the one to share enhancements to code you are freely given.

Open source is built for business. There are a variety of open source licenses, but one thing they all have in common is that they're "permissive," and don't carry those copyleft obligations.

It's ironic that over the last five years the GPL, with its copyleft obligations, has become very popular with businesses. One reason is they could subject it to "open core" ideas -- keeping the secret source proprietary in order to sell support subscriptions while enabling maximum community participation.

I sometimes think of FLOSS and open source as being like Catholics and Protestants. Brazil is a Catholic country. (Maybe Oliva sees open core as liberation theology -- liberating money from users' bank balances.)

But it also needs to be said that Linux remains under the GPL, and even Stallman himself hasn't moved to excommunicate the Linux Foundation for the "sins" Oliva describes. Maybe Oliva's piece is a gentle nudge toward having him do so.

Whatever, the bottom line is I'm delighted. It's wonderful to see new people, from new places, engage in these debates. New blood is a most welcome thing. I hope Mr. Oliva comes to Atlanta some day and we can see if there's any good feijoada in this town. (My treat.)

Topics: Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

About

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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