Would Linux Be Better Off Without the FSF?

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

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.”


  • Choosing the GPL for the Linux kernel was his best move. GNU/Linux depends on the GPL and the FSF but it is not the role of the FSF to be the advocate for GNU/Linux. Others have to do that: businesses, OEMs, individuals, developers etc. who use and love GNU/Linux have to promote it in all the various environments in which we live. No single organization can do as good a job as all of us.

  • <b>"They should be working with hardware manufacturers so ‘write once, use for years’ like Windows and OS X works on Linux."</b>

    First off, almost every damn thing you ever buy from proprietary sources **won’t** work reliably for years. If you update to new hardware, you need new drivers, and it sometimes takes years for them to be 95% stable, by which time you may have (for things like graphics) already replaced it. Oddly, once they have a working driver at all (often hamstrung by the hardware manufacturers themselves), as long as no "major" changes happen in the hardware, it just works **forever** when is an FOSS driver. We used to get this with most hardware for PCs, back when we had DOS, and you talked direct to the hardware. Now *everything* has a driver, they are all different, for every single new version of the item in question, and the differences are all non-trivial to fix. Yet, again, somehow, Linux manages, with relatively few hickups, to support most of them better.

    Which ones does it not? Some obscure "Windows only" networking gadgets, and graphics cards, the later of which are only fully supported for… ding, ding, ding, Windows, have been sloppily, if at all, for everything else. Hell, even I am not delusional enough to think that the driver I have on this machine, for XP, for my graphics card *works right*. I have had to patch it twice, when programs that actually stressed it triggered bugs. In the old days, if the hardware had a bug, you used it to get graphics modes you where not supposed to, according to their "official" specification. Now.. You have bugs on the card, bugs in the driver, and you sit around waiting for someone else to "fix" everything.

    No thanks..

    I do, somewhat, agree with the GUI comment. But, there is a clear split in Linux users, between those that would run without one, or stripped down, and those that want one. I am one of the later. But because of that split, a lot of the people writing software simply don’t care if it has a good GUI. Its not that programmers can’t "make" one. Hell, I was trying to make better ones back when I first wrote things for Windows, some 10 years ago. You know what? The damn OS made designing anything that didn’t "look" Windows, even when that option was irrational, or counterproductive, nearly impossible, without spending thousands on books, and other resources, or wasting days experimenting, to hunt down ways "around" the bloody GUI elements. Claiming that this is a "better" option, compared to having 60% of your coders say, "Gah! You want we to add a GUI to my perfectly good program?!", isn’t saying much. And.. that is without ignoring the fact that MS’ **only** advantage is a willingness to take 30 design ideas, pick 10 out that don’t turn the OS into a useless wreck, and make something that has a lot of wow, and almost no actual substance (that was in the 20 ideas rejected, because it broke the OS to try to add them… lol).

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