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Would Linux Be Better Off Without the FSF?

By Katherine Noyes
Mar 22, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Linux fans may be united in their love for FOSS, but when it comes to the Free Software Foundation, opinions tend to diverge dramatically.

Would Linux Be Better Off Without the FSF?

There's no doubt the advocacy group has done a commendable job of promoting and defending the use of free software licenses; what's less clear, however, is whether its hard stance has helped encourage wider Linux adoption.

Luckily, help was on hand last week to assist in deciding that very question. Sure enough, the good folks over at TuxRadar put together an open ballot last Tuesday entitled, "Would you hire the FSF for the role of Linux PR department?"

Bloggers didn't hesitate to express themselves -- with freedom.

'Linux and GNU Are Conjoined Twins'

"I prefer open source and Linux without GNU," Anonymous Penguin began in the TuxRadar comments.

"Freedom is the absence of coercion," but "the FSF promotes coercive practices (all software licenses are, by definition, coercive) as 'freedom,'" Anonymous Penguin explained. "At best, the FSF is intellectually challenged; at worst, they are intentionally attempting to obfuscate the true meaning of the words free and freedom."

On the other hand: "The fact remains Linux and GNU are conjoined twins," uomosenzanome countered. "To all those 'No's' out there, I hate to inform you that they both share too many vital organs to be successfully separated. Please keep this in mind as you try to chainsaw your way through their shared heart in the name of 'freedom from FSF coercion.'

"I for one am extremely thankful to the FSF foundation for everything they have done in defense of the GPLs and the GNU project for all the great software and libraries I can use freely," uomosenzanome added. "If you aren't a corporate thief, stealing and making a profit off a public resource, how can you possibly be against the FSF?"

A 'Quasi-Subliminal' Attack

Then again: "Come on, enough already!" wrote Polly the Parrot. "You guys have been finding covert ways to denigrate the FOSS mindset for a while, and now you use a quasi-subliminal tactic to attack the FSF.

"This 'open ballot' is a disgrace," Polly the Parrot added. "If you cannot be honest and stop depending on Microsoft's money, just shut up and close your Linux and FOSS-related publications."

With vehemence like that, it was clear the topic had struck a chord with Linux bloggers. Linux Girl took to the streets of the blogosphere with her own informal poll to learn more. *Should* the FSF be in charge of Linux PR?

'Sorry, RMS, Linux Already Won'

"Absolutely not," was the unequivocal response from Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

"While the FSF has a role to play in the larger dialogue, it's fairly clear that they have very different views on many key issues than Linus," Travers told LinuxInsider.

Aside from the Linux vs. GNU/Linux debate -- "sorry, RMS, 'Linux' already won," Travers opined--other key distinguishing issues include:

  1. "Is nVidia in violation of the GPL due to the fact that they release closed-source drivers? Linus says no, RMS says yes," Travers pointed out.
  2. "The relative merits of GPL v2 vs GPL v3 and concerns over Tivoization," he added. "These are built on profound differences in how Linus and RMS see the relative merits of software freedom."
  3. "There are fundamental disagreements with the most Free distros, such as Debian, over how 'Free' some of the FSF's documentation is," he noted. "For example, Debian considers the GNU Emacs documentation to be non-free because of invariant sections."

In short, "the FSF is an advocate for its own point of view," Travers concluded. "This poses important conflicts of interest when it comes to promoting Linux distributions because it is sometimes in conflict with mainstream ideals within the Linux community."

'There Will Always Be Proprietary Software'

"Would a giant NO be big enough, or should we blow that up about 1,000 times?" Slashdot blogger hairyfeet exclaimed.

"News Flash: There will ALWAYS be proprietary software -- full stop," hairyfeet told LinuxInsider. "And in reality? Many of them are MUCH, MUCH better than FOSS software, because programmers do not good GUI designers make.

"But instead of accepting this and working on the bigger picture, which is giving folks choices, they go with the all-or-nothing route that makes them look like zealots," hairyfeet added. "They should be working with hardware manufacturers so 'write once, use for years' like Windows and OS X works on Linux."

Instead, it is "strictly SCoN -- Source Code or Nothing!" he asserted, "which usually gets you exactly that: nothing at all."

In general, "anything done too much is bad for you, and zealotry is never healthy, be it religions, politics or software," hairyfeet concluded.

'I Vote Linus'

"The FSF is a PR disaster," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack agreed. "Between the constant whining over open vs. free and the constant complaints about the evils of proprietary software, it seems like all they do these days is make us all sound like a bunch of whiny little children."

Viewed a different way, however, the question itself is a silly one, Slashdot blogger David Masover opined.

"Silly question because Linux is just a kernel, and even if you're talking about a whole Linux distro, open source and free software cover more than just that -- consider Firefox," he added. "Also silly because even if you restrict it to Linux alone, you'd still have a hard time assigning any one official PR voice to it."

In other words, "it's not just that I don't want the FSF speaking for me, but that it's silly to imagine anyone could even pretend to," Masover concluded. "But if we have to hire a PR person, I vote Linus."

'The Four Freedoms Have Served Everyone Well'

Whether the FSF has helped or harmed Linux uptake is the real issue, asserted Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site.

"The GPL -- which is really what we're talking about here -- has made a huge difference," she explained. "Companies had a choice: Contribute code to BSD, and maybe see a fork with their code taken proprietary and used against them, or contribute to Linux, where they can still take advantage of any code in a subsequent fork."

BSD isn't dying, she added, "but the real action is with Linux -- we never hear,'is this the year of the BSD desktop?'"

The FSF's hard line against proprietary code in Linux, in fact, is part of the reason "nobody was worried about the SCO claims," Hudson noted--"if it's in there, tell us and we'll remove it, because we don't want it."

In short, "the four freedoms that Stallman laid out have served everyone well," Hudson concluded. "People who don't like it are free to fork BSD instead of complaining."

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