The Linus Files, Part Two: Torvalds Says GPLv3 Backers Full Of "Hot Air"

Last week I wrote that Linux creator Linus Torvalds called advocates of the Free Software Foundation's GPLv3 license "hypocrites." A few readers complained I had not provided a complete picture of Torvald's feelings. They were right. He also thinks FSF leaders are "controlling," "condescending," and full of "hot air." And he's got more choice words for GPLv3 itself.

Paul McDougall, Editor At Large, InformationWeek

July 16, 2007

6 Min Read

Last week I wrote that Linux creator Linus Torvalds called advocates of the Free Software Foundation's GPLv3 license "hypocrites." A few readers complained I had not provided a complete picture of Torvald's feelings. They were right. He also thinks FSF leaders are "controlling," "condescending," and full of "hot air." And he's got more choice words for GPLv3 itself.In a series of postings on the Linux kernel mailing list under the thread 'Dual-Licensing Linux Kernel with GPL V2 and GPL V3', Torvalds makes clear his distaste for the third version of the General Public License and its creators--a group led by the Free Software Foundation's eccentric president Richard Stallman:

"The FSF crowd is vocal and opinionated, but it's largely made up of people who talk more than they actually code. Hot air doesn't make the world go round. Real code does," Torvalds writes in one post in the thread.

"Now look at the people who try to sell the GPLv3 as the best thing since sliced bread. How many of those are people who actually get things done? I haven't really seen a single one. Last I did the statistics, I asked the top 25-30 kernel developers about their opinion. NOT A SINGLE ONE preferred the GPLv3," Torvalds states in another.

"The GPLv3 seems to attract people who make the wrong technical decisions," Torvalds says in the thread.

Why is any of this important?

The General Public License, authored by the Free Software Foundation, is used by thousands of open source and free software programmers. Torvalds creation, Linux, is governed by GPL version 2. Its successor, GPLv3, was published last month by FSF. It's widely seen as less business-friendly than GPLv2 because it limits the ability of software developers to control how their products are used in commercial settings.

As a result, one of the big questions in the software industry at the moment is whether Torvalds will ever license the Linux kernel under GPLv3. Given his recent comments on the Linux kernel mailing list, I'd say it's doubtful.

The GPLv3 rule that Torvalds takes issue with the most is the so-called anti-Tivoization provision. The rule forbids companies that use GPLv3 software in their products from taking steps to prevent end-user modifications--like DVR-maker Tivo has done in the past in an effort to frustrate DRM hackers.

Torvalds things the rule could kill open source software's chances of gaining market share in commercial computing.

Several readers of my previous blog entry on this topic said I took Torvald's remarks out of context and exaggerated his antipathy toward FSF and GPLv3, so I thought I'd follow up with some more excerpts from the thread. That way, everyone can make up their own mind. (Or they can, like I did, read through the dozens of posts contained within the thread for themselves).

Here's some of Torvald's more revealing remarks about FSF and GPLv3:

"I'm not stupid, that means that I actually can predict the future to some fuzzy degree, and that people really should not be surprised by the fact that I never let the FSF control my choice of license."

"You seem to argue that it's perfectly fine to ignore the people who design hardware and the services around them, and once you have that piece of hardware in your grubby hands you can do anything you want to it, and their rights and the contracts you signed don't matter at all. Guys, you should be ashamed of calling yourselves 'free software' people."

"Given that I think that what Tivo did is fine, the GPLv3 'solution' is not a solution at all, is it? Quite the reverse. It's an unnecessary restriction that doesn't actually solve anything at all, it just adds problems of its own. And yet you claim that you cannot understand why I (and others) would consider the GPLv3 to be a 'worse' license. It is obviously worse to anybody who thought that Tivoisation wasn't a problem in the first place!"

"There are bad laws in the U.S. But blaming Tivo for them is ludicrous. And the 'laws' won't get fixed by software licensing either. It's quite the reverse. The GPLv3 will just make free software that uses it 'less' relevant in that space, rather than more."

"You try to claim that the GPLv3 causes 'more developers', and that, my idiotic penpal, is just crazy talk that you made up… The GPLv2 is the one that allows more developers. The GPLv2 is the one that is acceptable to more people."

"Look at the kernel developers who claim the GPLv2 is better. Not just me. Then look at the people who actually GET THINGS DONE. There's a big overlap there."

"I am firmly of the opinion that one of the signs of an outstanding engineer is making the right technical choices. The GPLv2 is okay with that. The GPLv3 is not. The GPLv3 makes limits on what you can do from a technical angle, in a way that GPLv2 does not."

"The GPLv3 is for people who care more about the opinions of the FSF than about technology. And why the hell should I trust people like that to make the right technical choices in 'other' matters? "

"I think more people like the middle ground and not-frothing-at-the-mouth spirit of 'open source' over the religious dogma of 'free software.'"

"I hate it how the FSF thinks others are morons who cannot read or think for themselves. Anytime you disagree with the FSF, you 'misunderstand' (insert condescending voice) the issue."

"Thinking that the FSF is controlling and putting its fingers where they don't belong is no misunderstanding"

"The anti-Tivo measures are actually more than just 'anti-Tivo'. They are also 'anti-anything-else-that-might-want-to-lock-down-a-specific-version-for-security-or-regulatory-reasons.'"

Just to be clear, I don't have a preference for GPLv2 over GPLv3, or vice versa. I'm a neutral observer. But I do know that thousands of InformationWeek readers have sound business reasons for wanting to know whether the Linux kernel will fall under GPLv3. As your humble servant, I'm just trying to shed some light on the matter.

And for those that believe I took Torvald's statements out of context, I'll let Torvalds himself have the last word here (also taken from the 'dual-licensing' thread on the Linux kernel mailing list):

"I think the GPLv2 is superior to the GPLv3. That is simply not something you can argue against. You can just say 'ok, it's your choice.' You can ask me 'why', and I've told you at length."

About the Author(s)

Paul McDougall

Editor At Large, InformationWeek

Paul McDougall is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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