Thursday, 11 November 2010 09:28

Is Linux really free software?


Is the Linux kernel really free, as in freedom? Or is it following the "open core" model defined by Andrew Lampitt in 2008, as claimed by Alexandre Oliva of the Free Software Foundation Latin America?

Oliva (below) is the maintainer of the Linux-libre project, which releases a version of the kernel with no non-free software.

Earlier this week, Oliva issued an announcement on behalf of the FSFLA, claiming, "Linux now contains more non-Free Software, and more drivers in its Free core that require separately distributed non-Free Software to function."

Quoting from articles written by Open Source Initiative directors Simon Phipps and Andrew Oliver, to support his argument, Oliva said: "The welcome news is that Open Source advocates have joined the Free Software Movement in denouncing the practice of Free Bait or Open Core."

Open core, as Lampitt defined it, is software that has a GPL core with commercial extensions. It is a kind of bait-and-switch approach.

Oliva believes Linux is following the same model. He told iTWire that though he had known for a long time that Linux was non-free because it contains blobs (sourceless software), it was only a couple of months back that he decided to go public.
Alexandre Oliva
"It was only in the last week of September, one week past the due date for my monthly column in Revista Espírito Livre (a Free Software magazine published monthly in Brazil), that my wife suggested that, rather than write yet another article on Linux-libre, I focused on (lack of) clarity and transparency in Linux. That brought to mind Linus' (Torvalds) rant about RMS (Richard Stallman) and FSF being too 'black and white'.

"A few hours later, the realization (sic) that Linux was Open Core dawned on me, and then I knew exactly what I wanted to write about for that issue, whose main focus was Linux, including an interview with Linus at LinuxCon Brazil in which he happened to mention black and white too. So I looked at (Simon) Phipps' article again and wrote the article."

Oliva says he then thought this merited an announcement from FSFLA. "I started drafting it, in English, to consult with other FSFLA members and observers (some from other FSFs).

"It turned out that Linux 2.6.36 was released while I was flying to Canada for a Red Hat meeting followed by the GCC Summit, so the Linux-libre release was some 24 hours late. The announcement took a few weeks to get in shape, not only because I had very little computer time during the trip, but also because it touched very sensitive spots (thus careful wording), and there were ongoing discussions about Open Core with a different twist that I'd rather not overlap with. Holidays and elections in Brazil and in the US also led to further delays."

The FSFLA is related to the other FSFs around the world - FSF India, FSF Europe and FSF France. "We all share pretty much the same mission, goals and long-term focus," Oliva says.

"That said, each of the FSFs is an independent, autonomous organization, with its own decision-making bodies, structures and membership rules. E.g., other FSFs have no authority over FSFLA, but we do often consult with the others, and we have invited into our board observers from the other FSFs, and they always provide us with valuable advice and perspectives from different cultures, which is particularly valuable at times like this, when we reach for a worldwide audience, rather than focus on our own region."

The FSFLA is not involved in the provision of free drivers to replace non-free blobs in the kernel. "FSFs being political rather than technical organizations (sic), we tend to not get directly involved in software development, instead encouraging and supporting people, organizations (sic) and businesses to contribute to these efforts and using their freedom and power of choice to put pressure on hardware suppliers to offer software that respects customers' freedoms," Oliva says.

"It's kind of along the same lines of the FSF's providing funding and a legal framework for the GNU project, and at times funneling funds to high-priority projects."

However, at times, however, the organisation does end up getting involved, when there's a pressing political need for a piece of free software. "The case of Linux-libre was that we were to launch a campaign to invite people to 'Be Free!' in their use of software, but we realized (sic) that most GNU+Linux distros wouldn't permit them to do so," Oliva says.

"So we got involved and led various efforts to not only offer kernel source releases that free distros could use immediately, and also to offer freed versions of kernels for various other nearly-free distros, thus Freed-ora, Freed-ebian, and (hopefully some day) Huru-buntu (huru means freed in some African language)."


A number of distributions claim to be totally free, among them GNewSense which is sponsored, among others, by the FSF in the US.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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