Free Software Folly

Opinion: The FSF may be losing the support of part of its user base.

One of the best things about free and open-source software is the flexibility it grants users for working around vendors or project leaders whove lost touch with the needs of their stakeholders. These users are free to take the code, branch out on their own and perhaps overtake their parent projects.

Soon, the Free Software Foundation—which deserves much of the credit for delivering these liberties—may find itself in the odd position of being likewise jettisoned by a large and important part of its user base for the FSFs refusal to respect the needs and desires of its own stakeholders.

As I write this, the FSF is on the verge of releasing Version 3 of its popular and influential GPL (General Public License), complete with new provisions that would require vendors of some devices to enable users to run modified versions of the GPL-licensed software that drives those devices.

The issue, which is known as "Tivoization," is the result of what the FSF considers a loophole in the GPL 2, one that leaves device vendors, such as Tivo, free to foist DRM (digital rights management) and other user-unfriendly controls on device users. The FSF is out to close this loophole in GPL 3, whether or not that means parting ways with the GPLs most important stakeholders—namely, Linus Torvalds and many of the Linux kernel developers.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about why Torvalds doesnt plan to move Linux to the GPLv3.

Im no fan of DRM, but I can see that adding new rules to the GPL to govern how some device vendors are allowed to interact with their users would mean more confusion in the already-too-cloudy world of free and open-source licensing.

For instance, vendors of devices intended for home use would have to ensure that users could modify the software on these devices, as long as those modifications werent too severe.

The exact definitions of exempt versus nonexempt devices and modest versus severe software changes would be up to the developers who own the copyrights to decide and to police. The frustrating thing about this rather esoteric Tivoization flap is that there is a need for a new GPL version. At its core, the license upgrade is aimed at clarifying the controls and rights that already exist in the GPL 2, particularly those surrounding software patents.

However, with the FSF opting to stick to its guns on Tivoization, Torvalds and the rest of the kernel team could simply excise the offending portions of the GPL 3 and move ahead with a license that benefits from the modernization and clarification work that the FSF has done while lacking unpalatable and arguably overreaching added controls.

The FSF may be too interested in perfecting its vision of freedom to make room at the table for its VIP guests, but the nature of free software grants those guests the liberty to set out a new spread for themselves.

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