Is Linux FOSS or open source?

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

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  • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?

    "Specifically it contains some drivers and adapters whose use is restricted ... "

    Would you provide some examples?
    • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?

      @7mgte I mentioned Keyspan and Broadcom, both of which have these notices in the kernel code.
    • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?

      @7mgte Video drivers mostly. ATI and NVIDIA both have proprietary drivers you have to install to linux, but there is an entire repository of restricted drivers a linuc user can "turn on" and incorperate into their kernel.
  • Well...

    Considering that Linux would be useless without proprietary drivers, I say they are very important when it comes to Linux adoption. Tell a person that he or she can't play their favorite MP3 songs, open DOCX documents, or even watch DivX movies and they will seek alternatives. Why do you think Ubuntu offers proprietary drivers for download? It is to make it on par with Windows and Mac OS X, plain and simple.
    • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?

      Of COURSE they're important! Especially for those who run SW for which there are no plans to 'nix enable it, and no 'nix drivers for it. The same goes even more for hardware!
      In my case it's a problem with both HW and SW: no 'nix capability and no drivers; I check about every 3 months. I will not spend mucho $$$ simply to change to another OS. Either the drivers become avalable or I'll never use it, unless of course, MS can find some way to successfully force me out, which is a possibility I recognize and watched happen in China. If MS can give them the OS for $35, they can damned well do the same for us!!
  • So, protecting IP is paranoia

    And is a vain attempt to change behavior. Talk is cheap. Stop copyrighting your articles.
    • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?

      @frgough Copy attends when you hit publish.
    • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?

      @frgough "Stop copyrighting your articles." Your comment is off-target, because the GPL is *based* on copyright - copyleft simply fails without it. A more accurate (but less pithy) demand would be "Publish your articles under a Creative Commons share-alike license." (You lack moral imperative to make such a demand, of course, but you can at least avoid attempting to skewer with a club.)
  • To each his own ...

    I think the really important thing is to have a dividing line between the two. Those who for whatever reason want a pure lily white version of Linux with no IP encroachments should be able to find and use such a product. For the rest of us who actually don't mind paying for software now and then, there should be an enhanced product available as well. In fact, I would like to see much more of the open core concept. This so called "free bait" concept allows me as a user to get the most useful capabilities of the proprietary world for free and, by extension, often allows me to buy more of that capability if I need it. I really LIKE that concept and, personally, see nothing evil about it. I USE proprietary applications on my Linux boxes and would use more of them if they were available.
    George Mitchell
  • GPL isn't "free"

    NEVER let RMS dictate your terminology. The guy is a nut.

    Reality is, GPL'ed stuff is "free as in beer, not as in speech". GPL and other copyleft licenses are just as restrictive as anything Microsoft or Oracle uses... just that they are restrictive in different ways. Microsoft tells me, "you can't do that", GPL says, "you can do that, but then you need to do this."

    Your mistake here is accepting the Stallman "freedom isn't free" argument.

    The only truly "free" licenses are the copyfree ones such as Apache, BSD, and MIT licenses. They have true freedom attached to them, without the shackles of either the closed source world or Stallman's enforced wealth redistribution. Stallman is essentially a Communist, with a thin veneer of anarcho-capitalism laid on top to hide it.

    Justin James
    • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?

      @Justin James I disagree. I do think that the fourth freedom is an important concept.
    • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?

      @Justin James I also think labels like "communist" are an easy dodge, a way to dismiss someone and their ideas without giving them serious consideration. I've seen enough of that in politics and it saddens me to see it in tech.
      • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?

        @DanaBlankenhorn It's simple. You may feel that the "fourth freedom" is important. I can agree in large part that it is important. But DON'T call it "freedom". It is *not* freedom. As you say in your summary of it in an article you wrote a while back, it is an "obligation". You have the "freedom" to work with GPL or not work with GPL, but once you choose to use it, don't try renaming an "obligation" a "freedom". That's sophistry of the worst kind.<br><br>I usually dislike labels like "Communist" as well, particularly since they carry so much emotional baggage. But in this case it is quite accurate. Stallman and the GPL encourage a form of wealth redistribution in which any work I do is forced to be shared with others, regardless of my wishes, the moment I let my efforts out the door.<br><br>J.Ja
        Justin James
      • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?


        But only in America Dana. I don't care if he's communist, socialist or idealist. In fact if he's socialist, I'll at least listen to him.

        Don't think the US hate labels of the month translate world wide ;-)
      • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?

        @Justin James "Stallman and the GPL encourage a form of wealth redistribution in which any work I do is forced to be shared with others, regardless of my wishes, the moment I let my efforts out the door." It does no such thing. You can do any work you wish, and neither rms nor I nor any other GPL advocate gives a flip.

        What you CAN'T do is appropriate MY GPL'd work and pretend it's yours. That's what really has you in a snit.

        Nobody's forcing you to play in the GPL arena. If you won't share, go play in a permissive arena instead. We simply don't care. But at least stop calling people names.

    • :) you are the ignorant and nuts

      @Justin James
      First: RMS can define the terminology of a concept he coined.

      Second: Uhhh, a communist, one of those that eat children? how scarry. (translation, grow up and know what the term really means). Have you even read his essays to label him as such?

      The fourth freedom (or freedom 3): is the freedom to create and distribute modified versions as you wish. That is a freedom for the recipient of the code. And accepting that he accepts the obligations. So, yes, the license is restrictive. It restricts taking advantage without contributing back.

      I cannot imagine where we would be if Math or Language were proprietary or even BSD-like.
    • GPL Is Definitely "Free"

      @Justin James
      Your position is that freedom has to be absolute. Of course licenses like the BSD or MIT license are free. They give you absolute freedom to do what you want with the code.

      However, the GPL is also a free license. The fact that you have obligations regarding redistribution does not make it not free. In the real world nobody is free to do whatever they want with no restrictions, no obligations, and no consequences. In order for one person to have this ability, everyone else would necessarily lose the ability. In order for people as a whole to be free, there have to be some limitations on the freedom of each individual person. Obviously, one person can't be free to kidnap, imprison, murder, or steal because that would interfere with the freedom of those upon whom he perpetrates these crimes.

      Slightly less obviously, one person can't be free to park across a public road and block traffic so that others can't get through. This would be much less reprehensible than the crimes mentioned, but it still cannot be tolerated for very much the same reason (just to a lesser degree) as the serious crimes cannot be tolerated. The fact that you are restricted from doing this does not make you not free.

      The GPL is based on the same principle. The only restriction it places on those who wish to redistribute code released under it is to not restrict the freedom of others to continue to do the same thing that they are doing.

      Of course if you release code under a BSD style license, that code is free as well, but there is no obligation for future code made from it to continue to be free.
      • RE: Is Linux FOSS or open source?


        Nicely said. What Justin James want is power. GPL gives you all the freedom you need, and RMS is right, it is freedom.

        But JJ wants power. BSD or MIT license is no more free than GPL. While GPL gives 4 essential freedoms, BSD has:

        Freedom #5: Freedom to watch someone ripping your work and competing against you with your own code.

        Freedom #6 Freedom to get sued by ex-contributor for patent infringement, even though it is his code that is infringing (since BSDL has no patent grant, this is completely legal).

        And how are those freedoms? They are not freedom for those who are on receiving end. Those who rip off and sue are ones who might like those "freedoms", but that doesn't make it more of a freedom than "freedom to do evil". Real phrase for that would "power to do evil".

        This is nicely documented here:
    • Ah yes, name calling and baiting. Bravo troll.

      @Justin James: Its nice to see people like you still live in your Cold War world. People like you who feel that unlike Dana who believes that both free software and open source bring something to the table are so blinded by hatred that they need to exteriorize that anger by insulting someone.
      Some would call you a sad pathetic man. I, on the other hand, wont.

      I work on a few GPLed FLOSS projects and we have paid contributors that work for these reknowned american communists sympathizers, IBM, Intel and the Dept of Defense. The latter Im sure is anarcho-capitalistic as well.

      We try to teach our children that in life you have to be able to debate. To defend one's ideas and beliefs does not mean childish behavior, it does not mean taking someone else's beliefs as a personal affront to your own.
      Its like with homosexuality. Its not my cup of tea by a longshot but what you do in your bedroom has never entered my mind before, so why should I care?

      The same with the GPL. Why should you care?
      Is someone forcing you to join a project against your will?
      The GPL is like any little club. If you want to join, you are asked to follow a few basic rules. If you dont like some of them, then you are welcome to not join and no one will care.
      You act like the guy who is trying to score with some chicks and then calls them lesbians when they reject them.

      You cant abide to some rules, whether its no spitting or cursing, no wearing boots on the gym floor or following the conditions of the GPL. So right away you feel rejected and hurt that such a large group of people dont have your view of the world, therefore they are all metaphoric lesbians in your eyes.

      I could spend hours analyzing your rant simply because ive met tons of guys like you both at conferences and on IRC.
      Youre like the guy who goes to gay gatherings and tells them that they are sinning. The type who thinks debating whether something is called a freedom or an obligation is important. (I call it a responsability but I could care less about what someone calls it). Or that using the 'wrong' definition is grounds for personal attacks.
      Ive seen guys like you and even worked with a few for a while but they are more trouble and time consuming than they are worth and will suck your time until they prove that 'they are right'.
      Ive seen the best like ESR drone on and on and on about this which license is freer for years
      and my interest in this is right up there with ?How many angels can you fit on the tip of a needle??

      I think that guys like Oliva and RMS, Moglen, Jeremy Allison and rest are necessary for both open source and free software and I think that proprietary apps like Skype and Opera and Google Earth should be equally at home in Linux as native apps.
  • You have the hardware - you may use the driver ...

    There is an engineering need to use the manufacturer's drivers for hardware products that need drivers. Use the wrong driver and you are in dangerous uncharted territory.
    I would not want my drivers telling my user that the attached product (not mine) was working fine when it wasn't - or not working when it was, or worse. So I would not want my drivers used with the wrong hardware, nor would I want the vice-versa.
    So a notice saying only use this software with the hardware it was designed for makes total sense to me, whether it is an engineering advisory, an FAA directive or a legal notice. It does not make any sense to discourage the use of a product with such a sensible requirement.
    I really don't mind being told not to fiddle with driver code, and that it is an extension of the hardware and its warranty. And I really do appreciate it being there. And it being there makes me another potential purchaser.