No such thing as a free Linux distro

No such thing as a free Linux distro

Summary: A few Linux distributions emphasize license freedom as a goal, but Tom "Spot" Callaway says that there's no such thing as a free Linux distro.Callaway, Fedora's engineering manager, writes that "you'd need to do an incredibly thorough audit of every file in the system to be sure that every single file is under a known license," and the evidence says that most distros haven't actually done it.


A few Linux distributions emphasize license freedom as a goal, but Tom "Spot" Callaway says that there's no such thing as a free Linux distro.

Callaway, Fedora's engineering manager, writes that "you'd need to do an incredibly thorough audit of every file in the system to be sure that every single file is under a known license," and the evidence says that most distros haven't actually done it.

When we find something non-free, it almost always exists in the "100% Free GNU/Linux distributions". I don't spend time checking these things out, honestly, but for example, all of them were shipping GLX under SGI's god-awful FreeB (and GLX) licensing at one point, well after Fedora and Debian both were aware of it. The number of things I have found (and continue to find) along with the surprise from upstreams when I inform them of the issues, forces me to draw the conclusion that the "100% Free" distributions are not doing proper audits (or if they are, they're not talking to the upstreams about it).

I found this post particularly interesting in the light of the openSUSE 11.1 release. We decided we wanted to make sure that openSUSE was freely redistributable, and get rid of the old EULA, but we don't claim that the release is "100% free" in terms of the software meeting the Free Software Foundation's definition of free, or even the Open Source Initiative's terms for being called "open source."

Not that the goal of being 100% Free isn't laudable. Just that it's not quite as easy to accomplish as it might seem at first glance.

Topics: Banking, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

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  • Ideology versus practical use

    I prefer a distro that works well on my hardware, over an ideologically pure free distro that has lots of issues.

    The main factor for me is free as in "umsonst" and free as in "Freiheit zum ?ndern". Of course I like free as in "frei", but that's of secondary importance to me. Usability first.

    Off topic: openSUSE 11.1 is great! However, the installation procedure is still needlessly complicated.

    I'm an experienced Linux user and I can figure it out. No problem. But beginners with Linux will have many difficulties. That's why openSUSE should have an installation procedure as brilliantly simple as the Ubuntu installation.

    Tsch?ss, Pjotr.
    • Thanks

      Thanks for the feedback. Feel free to dive into the openSUSE Factory list if you'd like to give some input for 11.2.
  • We need a new audit.

    Oh, not on Linux, on Windows 7. How much Open Source code has found its way into Microsoft's programing mill?
  • RE: No such thing as a free Linux distro

    But there's also no such thing as a free copy of
    Windows. Give me a copy of Ubuntu anyday. The
    time for lawsuits and FUD is passed. It's clear that
    Microsoft will not press the nuclear button and sue
    for infringements in Linux. It is similar to the 'MAD'
    (mutually-assured destruction) situation of the US-
    Soviet stand-off. There can be no ultimate winner if a
    Linux-Microsoft legal fight happens. Just a huge,
    industry-crippling mess and the destruction of
    $billions in shareholder value.
  • RE: No such thing as a free Linux distro

    Well, at least Linux doesn't cost me anything, even if it's not "free."

    Windows used to cost me between $200 and $600 for every update (every 3 years), hardware replacement, and much, much more for software add-ons (security as well as productivity apps).
  • gNewSense

    gNewSense. There you have it.
    • Nope

      As mentioned - gNewSense seems to have some of the non-free software in question. They may get there eventually, though.
  • Does it really matter?

    Not to me. 'Free' to me means free of Window$ bloatware. 'Free' to do with my computer as I please. 'Free' of malware. 'Free' of spending hours defraging and running virus and spyware scans. You get the point.
    • I don't

      Because Vista/XP has no 'bloatware'. If anything, they are 'bloated' by the fraking drivers they have to put into it to support every single item, no matter how old, under the sun.
      Free of malware? Only because it is an 'also-ran' operating system. Same thing for viruses and spyware.

      Defragging? Excuse me, but even on Linux, you are going to need to defrag at LEAST once a month unless you are using your computer solely for e-mail and web browsing.
      • re:I don't

        >>>...Defragging? Excuse me, but even on Linux, you are going to need to defrag at LEAST once a month unless you are using your computer solely for e-mail and web browsing<<<

        Odd. I have used desktop Linux since 1999 for many things. Downloading and playing music. Playing, converting, storing and copying CDs and DVDs. Creating documents, spreadsheets, etc, and have never needed to defrag. Servers may have different needs. But my desktop? Never!
      • Linux doesn't need defragging

        I've used Linux since the days of Red Hat Linux 8 and I'm 100% certian that Linux doesn't need defragging because the filesystems are much more robust than Windows' NTFS. NTFS needs defragging because it inherits the fragmenting behavior of DOS' FAT file system for backwards compatibility.

        But I think you may be confusing the "fsck" command for a defragger. Fsck is the Linux equivalent of Scandisk.
        Tony Agudo
      • Excuse me...

        Just goes to show me that you have never used Linux. 3 years and never had to defrag my Ubuntu. XP was fat but not too overly bloated. Vista? An elephant with a keyboard. Come back with your comments when you get the training wheels off of your bike.
        • Excuse yourself

          Linux can become fragmented, although perhaps at a somewhat slower rate than Windows. There are defragging tools available for Linux. Vista of course defrags automatically, but even XP could be automated if one wished to do so.

          Vista is bloated? Which version? The only version that I would call bloated is Ultimate. Business Edition is not bad, while Premium offers a decent feature set for most home users. Basic, of course, is pretty sparse. I find Linux versions, like Ubuntu, to be lacking in basic features. Yes, I can download them for free, and the installation is pretty easy, but it can still be argued that Linux is not as complete upon installation as even Vista Basic or XP Home. Keep in mind that one person's bloat is another's necessity.
          • Excuse you...

            Most had to buy a new computer to be able to handle Vista Bloatware. Computers 2 years old couldn't handle it. Linux MAY become fragmented after a year or two of use, but guess what? A new version comes out every 6 months (without compiling as some trolls suggest) which runs on the same hardware as the previous release . So, guess what again? Defragging isn't needed. Basic features are included, Open Office, word processor, internet, Gimp for photo editing, movie player, just simply install the codecs from the repositories, my son does his school work on here etc. etc. and the list goes on and on and on. So, you do what you want and I'll enjoy the extra time that I have from not having to spend a couple of hours a week fighting off malware, crashes for no reason and updating on 'patch Tuesday'. Linux updates when needed not when it is convenient for the software maker.
          • How odd...

            1.) I built a box back in Jan of 2005 - using parts that were considered "average" for the day (Athlon 64, 3400+, 1 GB RAM, 200 GB HD, DVD burner, Nvidia GeForce 7300 GS video) in anticipation of the Vista beta. The box ran both Beta 2 and RC 1 without too much trouble and it's running Vista SP1 today with - you guessed it - no problems. It's on par with XP on that same hardware.

            But yes, if you try running Vista on a box that's fairly old and worn out, odds are your experience with it would kinda suck.

            2.) I don't spend a couple of hours a week fighting malware. Nor anything else. Then again, I don't surf dangerously. I don't visit pr0n, warez or Chinese web sites that are known to harbor nasty infections.

            3.) Patch Tuesday isn't for the convenience of Microsoft. It's for the convenience of corporate customers. If patches come out on a predictable schedule, it makes it easier for IT departments to coordinate distribution and installation.

            This is NOT to say that Microsoft can't/won't release a patch when needed - the IE patch that came out last week was the 2nd this year that wasn't released on Patch Tuesday.

            So what we've got here is a parrot who's repeating stuff he's heard - not someone who's speaking from any sort of experience...
          • Ummmm....

            This 'parrot' owns 1? No, 2? No, how about 3 computer repair centers. I'm not repeating stuff that I have heard, I'm stating fact that I have seen. You are in the minority if you don't receive 'bad' emails, or your kids (my guess is that you aren't old enough to have kids) don't use Limewire or click on anything that pops up etc. etc. etc. Let me clue you in about the real World. Most aren't as'perfect' as you think you are (which you aren't). Most are computer novices. IT departments are perfectly capable of patching their own systems whenever is convenient for them . They don't need Microsoft telling them when to do it. Another fact is that most (again, I've seen it first hand) don't go out and buy new computers every year and most are older computers. I could go on, but I won't. So, I guess what we have with you is a troll who hasn't a clue about real World computing. Come back when you get a little older. Have a nice day.
          • You only own 3 computer repair centers?

            Most people posting here own 4 or more! If you're going to make up credentials, go BIG!

            Spinning disks fragment, regardless of file system. Some file systems or operating systems make manual defragmentation unnecessary, but the fragmentation still occurs.
          • Fragmenting, as previously discussed on ZDNet


            Microsoft seems to be the only vendor who has created a file system that gets fragmented.

            Here is a link to an article that can explain it better than I can:

          • What is your point?

            Vista is designed for modern hardware, just like every version of Windows before it. Why would you want to put it on an old machine? When I upgraded to Vista at home, I built a new machine specifically for it rather than try to force it on my old XP machine. My old system is now running Ubuntu and may eventually be a server, while my new system runs Vista exceptionally well. When 7 hits, I will build a new machine for it as well.

            I have ran Ubuntu on systems as old as PIIs with 256 MB RAM, but would not dream of trying to put the latest version on machines like that. Even Linux requires more power to run the latest versions, and eventually will leave behind older hardware. The fact that it comes out with minor updates every few months rather than a big release every few years is a small point. How is that different than Microsoft's service packs?

            You can rant all you want, but in 2 years of running and supporting Vista, I have not had any issues with malware, and have found it to be far more stable and reliable than XP. I have had Ubuntu crash and lock up, sometimes just trying to run one of the built in screen savers, so don't even think of trying to claim that it is more stable. I currently have 3 machines running different versions of Linux, and a few more at work, so I am quite familiar with its capabilities and quirks. I even recommend it to some, but have no delusions that it would meet everone's needs.
          • Fail

            I am typing this on a 4 year old Dell P4 based machine running Vista Ultimate. Runs absolutely fine thank you.

            And for the record, any filesystem that stores files as chunks (as opposed to storing them contiguously) is liable to fragment files' chunks across the HDD, particularly as the HDD gets full and/or as time passes.