​Linux Foundation leadership controversy erupts

A debate has sprung up in Linux circles over whether the Linux Foundation is serving individual open-source users or its corporate sponsors.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Linux is no stranger to controversy. Top developers, such as Sarah Sharp, have either left the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML), home of the Linux development community or, like Matthew Garrett, left to follow their own programming path. And Linus Torvalds has never been afraid to tell programmers who didn't measure up in his opinion exactly what he thought about their code.


The Linux Foundation, the non-profit organization that supports Linux and increasingly other open-source projects such as software-defined networking, OpenDaylight; containers, Open Container Initiative; and the R language, R Consortium, tends not to have controversies. Until now.

Garrett, now a security developer at CoreOS, recently spotted that the Linux Foundation had changed its bylaws to no longer permit individual Foundation members to elect members of the the group's board of directors. Garrett wrote, "The majority of its board is chosen by the member companies - 10 by platinum members (platinum membership costs $500,000 a year), 3 by gold members (gold membership costs $100,000 a year) and 1 by silver members (silver membership costs between $5,000 and $20,000 a year, depending on company size). Up until recently individual members ($99 a year) could also elect two board members, allowing for community perspectives to be represented at the board level."

Why would the Linux Foundation do this? Garrett speculates it's because Karen Sandler, the executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy, an organization that does vitally important work to enforcement of the GPL open-source license is standing for election to the Linux Foundation board. Garrett noticed that, "the 'Individual membership' program was quietly renamed to the 'Individual supporter' program and the promised benefit of being allowed to stand for and participate in board elections was dropped (compare the old page to the new one)."

Why would The Linux Foundation do this? Garrett states that it "has historically been less than enthusiastic about GPL enforcement, and the SFC is funding a lawsuit against one of the Foundation's members [VMware] for violating the terms of the GPL. The timing may be coincidental, but it certainly looks like the Linux Foundation was willing to throw out any semblance of community representation just to ensure that there was no risk of someone in favor of GPL enforcement ending up on their board."

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Jim Zemlin, chairman of The Linux Foundation, countered, "the Linux Foundation Board structure has not changed. The same individuals remain as directors, and the same ratio of corporate to community directors continues as well. What we did do was to act on a long-discussed perception that the value we provide to individual supporters could be improved, for the first time in a decade. And that the process for recruiting community directors should be changed to be in line with other leading organizations in our community and industry."

Zemlin continued, "Board voted to keep Larry Augustin [SugarCRM CEO] and Bdale Garbee [Hewlett Packard Enterprise Fellow in the CTO Office] as individual At-Large Directors in recognition of their longstanding service to the community and individual commitment to helping advance The Linux Foundation. And the kernel developers continue to appoint a director as well. We welcome and value the continuing participation of Grant Likely in that capacity. Over time, the LF Board may also choose to add additional individuals from the growing communities we now serve."

He added, "We understand that governance issues are important, and that there will be differences of opinion when such changes occur. That is normal and healthy. What is not healthy is the type of 'flame wars' that too often erupt in developer communities. Sadly, it appears that is now occurring, and that the conversation relating to an LF governance change has devolved into personal, inappropriate and offensive remarks directed against some members of our community, and in particular against Karen Sandler."

"Karen," Zemlin continued, "has dedicated her career to promoting and defending free software. Since these comments and attacks are being made in the context of online discussions relating to The Linux Foundation, I feel compelled to state in no uncertain terms that the Foundation does not condone, and stands against the type of online behavior that has too often been allowed to go on unchecked."

I fully applaud Zemlin's stance against trolling, but it strikes me that Garrett and Zemlin are talking at cross purposes. The immediate question is: "Is Sandler still eligible to run for the board?" I've asked the Foundation and I haven't gotten an answer yet.

The real question behind the debate, as I see it, is who controls The Linux Foundation? The users or the companies?

Garrett sees this move as The Linux Foundation taking one more step away from the community and towards the corporate world. Zemlin doesn't address this point specifically but, tellingly, he does say that the "process for recruiting community directors should be changed to be in line with other leading organizations in our community and industry."

In addition, as Garrett pointed out, individuals no longer have "The ability to run for and vote for a Linux Foundation board seat and influence the direction of the foundation."

Personally, I see this as a move towards more corporate control of the Foundation. But, as the saying goes, who pays the piper calls the tune. I find nothing surprising about this move.

While open-source users love the concept of community, the "community" has been made up of corporate executives and employees for well over a decade now. Only the most idealistic open-source developer and leaders and, ironically, open source's most fervent enemies still think of Linux and open-source projects being created and controlled by private individuals.

Besides, the overwhelming majority of The Linux Foundation board of directors has always been made up of corporately chosen directors. Still, this Linux Foundation decision rubs me the wrong way. Linux started as an individual's project that quickly gathered the support of many bright programmers. There should always be a place for individuals rather than corporations to have their say in The Linux Foundation's leadership.

I hope Sandler, who is a strong, brilliant open-source leader, not only is allowed to run for office, but wins a place on the board. I also hope the Foundation restores the right for individuals to vote and run for office on the board. This is not asking for much, and it would restore faith that the Foundation still has room left for the little people and not just the big companies.

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