Enterprise Unix Roundup: Leaving Politics Aside

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Jan 27, 2006

Main     In Other News     Elsewhere in the Corral     Tips of the Trade
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: GPLv3 will not impact the current Linux kernel. If you don't believe us, see what Linus says. If the lack of documentation and support is making Qmail a tough sell, Qmail Toaster may help seal the deal.

Brian Proffitt
Amy Newman

What if you built a new license, and nobody came?

That may be what some industry pundits are saying after the initial reactions to the draft proposal of version 3 of the Gnu General Public License (GPL). Especially after Linus Torvalds made it quite clear that the Linux kernel wasn't going to be relicensed under GPLv3 when the new license was finalized.

Were we shocked and horrified? No, we've been saying the same thing for weeks: There is no good reason for the Linux kernel to move to the new version of the GPL.

After all, why should it? Because it offers the latest and greatest in digital rights management (DRM) and patent protection? Because it's new? Sorry, not good enough reasons for Torvalds, and for the most part we agree.

The whole shiny, new license kick is just a throwback to the consumer mentality to have the latest and greatest of everything. New PC? Gotta have it. New 56-inch monitor? Gotta have it. New GPL? Gotta have that, too, it seems. But Linux (and we're talking about the kernel here, folks) has done just fine with the GPLv2 license. To date, there have been no valid legal challenges to the kernel, either its license or its content. SCO v. IBM? Please, we said valid.

Now, we have looked at the DRM- and patent-oriented clauses in the proposed license, which is what Torvalds cited as problematic, and on the surface, we like the looks of them. Specifically, Torvalds states, "it's insane to require people to make their private signing keys available, for example. I wouldn't do it."

What he's referring to is the part of the draft license that says if a program requires a specific private encryption key to run, that key must be provided with the source code of the application when it's shared. (It should be noted that this does not mean when individual developers sign their code with their own encryption keys — they have to provide those. Those keys will not hamper the running of the application, so therefore they can be kept private.)

Those who don't care for Torvalds (and gee, we can't imagine who that might be), have pointed out that he seems to be behaving in a pro-DRM manner. Well, whether you agree with that stance or not, it is a consistent one for him. In April 2003, Torvalds stated quite clearly on the Linux Kernel mailing list: "I want to make it clear that DRM is perfectly ok with Linux!"

In that message, Torvalds was very prophetic about the coming draft (although he likely had the benefit of some personal discussions with the author of the GPL, Richard Stallman):

I've had some private discussions with various people about this already, and I do realize that a lot of people want to use the kernel in some way to just make DRM go away, at least as far as Linux is concerned. Either by some policy decision or by extending the GPL to just not allow it.

In some ways the discussion was very similar to some of the software patent related GPL-NG discussions from a year or so ago: 'we don't like it, and we should change the license to make it not work somehow.'

And like the software patent issue, I also don't necessarily like DRM myself, but I still ended up feeling the same: I'm an 'Oppenheimer,' and I refuse to play politics with Linux, and I think you can use Linux for whatever you want to -- which very much includes things I don't necessarily personally approve of.

"The GPL requires you to give out sources to the kernel, but it doesn't limit what you can do with the kernel. On the whole, this is just another example of why [Stallman] calls me 'just an engineer' and thinks I have no ideals.

That pretty much sums up why it came as no surprise to us that Linux will stay under the GPLv2. Torvalds intends his kernel to be a tool, nothing more. What people do with it is up to them.

We completely support this decision, although we're not proponents of DRM or patent poaching. In some respects, the former represents a huge source of potential abuse of privacy and ownership, while the latter is a sleazy way to make a quick buck from someone else's hard work. But just because we think patents and DRM must disappear does not mean we disagree with any one person's individual way of handling it. Torvalds doesn't want the kernel to be a political statement.

Freedom means he gets the right to make that assertion and stick to it.

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