Linux and the GPL: Together Forever

 
 
By Steven Vaughan-Nichols  |  Posted 2003-10-16
 
 
 

Forbes Magazine Senior Editor Daniel Lyons was shocked—shocked!—to find that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) actually enforces the GNU Public License (GPL). And he thinks these defenders of free software are actually endangering Linuxs acceptance (just like The SCO Group). Maybe its just me, but doesnt licensing and intellectual property allow you to have some say over them?

Specifically, Lyons says: "For months, in secret, the Free Software Foundation, a Boston-based group that controls the licensing process for Linux and other free programs, has been making threats to Cisco Systems and Broadcom over a networking router that runs the Linux operating system."

Secret? What secret?

The kernel of the story —that the FSF had objections to the use of Linux code in Cisco owned Linksys 802.11g Wi-Fi access points that use Broadcom wireless chips— is ancient news. It was talked about on Slashdot on June 8. And it was subsequently reported on June 9 in a story in The Register. This story was then widely linked to by other open-source-focused online newspapers. After that, anyone who wanted to could follow the saga in the many sites that mirror the Linux Kernel mailing list and in open-source news sites.

Can anything be "secret" if its been Slashdotted? I dont think so!

In any case, what in the world is wrong with the FSF protecting their intellectual property? Everyone protects their intellectual property. If you dont, its gone.

Unlike SCO, the FSF isnt seeking billions; the group is seeking only to make sure that people who use GPL-protected software obey the GPL. Indeed, the nonprofit FSF operates on a shoestring basis. Its purpose, in deed as well as in word, is to promote free software, not to make a buck.

But Lyons appears to think that the FSF, which has been protecting the GPL since 1991, is going to damage the overall use of free software and Linux in business circles.

What nonsense! Anyone who knows anything about the open-source IT business knows that if you use GPL software, you have to abide by the GPLs rules. Theres no secret to this. I cant begin to count the number of times that Eben Moglen (a Columbia Law School professor and the FSF counsel) has told everyone and anyone that the FSF will defend the GPLs intellectual property rights.

However, unlike SCO, which runs its lawsuits as a smear political campaign, the FSF doesnt loudly proclaim that its about to sue at the drop of a line of code. The FSF has never had to sue anyone because, as Professor Moglen told me a while back, "The GPL is so strong that no one ever seeks to contest it." Indeed, for all of SCOs grumblings, the Utah company still hasnt launched a direct legal assault against the GPL.

Lyons also ignores the simple fact that Linux continues to gain in popularity. Users, network administrators and developers: Pick a computer-using group, and youll find that its increasing its Linux investment.

If SCO, which has recently turned intellectual-property litigation into a public-relations opera, cant slow Linux down, why should a policy thats been in place for years do so now?

Now, its not that the GPL is perfect for all businesses. Its not.

Companies that want to produce software that shipped without source code find the GPL impossible to live with. Even Linux companies arent always crazy about the GPL, since it forces them to use a services approach for revenue instead of simply selling shrinkwrapped programs. As Ransom Love, former CEO of SCO, put it, "The GPL was not the open-source license I would have chosen for commercial opportunities."

Of course, there is nothing—I repeat, nothing—new about this argument. Thats why there are no fewer than 40 valid open-source licenses. Some people swear by the GPL because it gives the greatest possible intellectual-property freedom to all developers. Others proclaim the BSD licenses the best because they allow you to use open-source code to produce semi-closed-source programs. And still others work on new open-source licenses to try to get the best of all worlds.

To my law-unschooled mind, Linksys violated the GPL with its Broadcom chips, and now Cisco has inherited the problem. But this is not the end of the world for Linux.

Theres nothing all that valuable about Linksys 802.11g code; Its based, after all, on an open IEEE standard. What I suspect will happen is that Cisco will make a deal, and that will be that. If they dont want to do that, the company can kill its current AP operating system efforts and replace it with an open-source, BSD-based operating system with minimal re-coding requirements. It wouldnt be the first or last company to take that path.

But despite such moves and all arguments against the GPL, it remains the most important open-source license. And Linux, the program most closely associated with it, is; has been; and from all signs, will continue to be a success.

Discuss this in the eWEEK forum.

eWEEK.com Linux & Open Source Center Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about Unix and Linux since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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