Controversy at the Linux Foundation

Linux has seen more than its fair share of controversy through the years. And, that's not so surprising. For one thing, the operating system flies in the teeth of deeply entrenched multinational companies. The fact that it stands for users instead of vested interests has drawn more than a little ire as well.

And, let's be honest. Sometimes the controversy comes from within our own camp. Although the Open Source community is generally very welcoming and accepting, there always will be conflicts when a large group of people works together on a big project. It happens in offices. It happens in universities. And it has certainly happened on the Linux Kernel Mailing list.

It shouldn't be so surprising that tempers occasionally flare. People may come to the Open Source world with rose-tinted spectacles, expecting to join a utopia. I guess it can be disappointing to realize that we're human after all (yes, even Linus Torvalds).

In general, it's a good idea not to get drawn into flame wars and conflicts. Bruised egos aren't terribly important in the grand scheme--not while there's a worthwhile project underway. But, that's not to say that we should be complacent and ignore genuine controversies when they arise.

Let's take the case of the recent changes to the Linux Foundation bylaws. The Linux Foundation is a non-profit organization that exists to protect Linux and fund its growth. It pays Linus Torvald's wages so he can work on the kernel full time. It fights legal battles to keep the code free, and it provides training and certification.

Until recently, the foundation was the very model of a peaceful community. And, if there were conflicts, they happened behind closed doors. But the recent changes in its bylaws have provoked a wave of outrage in the community.

In the past, any member of the foundation could stand for election to the board. This included big companies paying hundreds of thousands of dollars per year and individuals paying only $99. There were two board positions for the community members to ensure that the requirements of the community were represented at the board.

The new bylaws mean that only high-end supporters can become board directors. As a result, there is no longer a counterweight against the big corporations. There are fears that the board will support the interests of big business and neglect the needs of the community, and that's where the outrage is coming from.

The change was first brought to light by Matthew Garrett, a former contributor to the Linux kernel who now works on security for CoreOS. Garret believes the laws were changed because Karen Sandler (the director of the Software Freedom Conservancy) was standing for election to the board.

Karen's organization works to protect GPL-licensed works and is actively pursuing legal action against VMware. VMware just so happens to be a high-end member of the Linux foundation. Of course, it could be a coincidence, but the timing is convenient for VMware.

Although this is troubling news for the community, it's worth noting that the Linux kernel remains free. It doesn't "belong" to the foundation. The foundation's role is to fund development and support its use.

The kernel is developed by Linus and a worldwide community of developers. If members of the community need a feature in the kernel, they can contribute directly to the development process, or they can support active developers through donations.

Of course, organizations like the Linux Foundation are important. It's also important for the organization to maintain good relations with the community--after all, without the community, there is no Linux.