A Matter of Principle: RMS at Linux Expo in Amsterdam

by Brenno J.S.A.A.F. Winter
The Expo: Large and Small Companies Promote Linux

The conference anticipated some 1,500 visitors the first day and 3,000 over two days, but I couldn't get a confirmation on the actual number. Unconfirmed sources said something like 700 people showed up. Considering the lack of advertisement and the size of the Netherlands, this was not a bad turnout at all. IBM, HP and Borland were among the the companies present at the exhibition. Before the keynotes, I walked around the show floor to taste some atmosphere. My first impression was that Free Software, in particular, Linux, is definitely gaining awareness. "Linux is serious business for us. Many large corporation are making Linux-based solutions. Also, the demand for more freedom of choice is on the rise. People want to go cross-platform", says Wim Hoek, Borland's marketing manager for Europe, Africa and Middle East (Nasdaq: BORL). Borland, which just finished changing its company name back to Borland, was on a mission to sell Kylix, their new Graphical development tools for the Linux-platform. The introduction is set for next month. "People have been waiting for these tools. We offer platform independence and that is definitely not irrelevant", Hoek said.

Some startups were among the Dutch companies exhibiting. I met with OpenOffice, a three-person company. Margreet Verhoef, one of the founders, told me, "We wanted to do desktop management and thus selected this name. Then a couple of months later Sun decides to GPL StarOffice and rename it OpenOffice". When I asked how the company was doing, she was proud to say they made a profit the first year. Although she says things are difficult now, the market is also getting ready to "Penguin-up". When we met again at the end of a day, she looked tired but satisfied: "We had quite some interesting leads. People do see the value we offer."

The focus, however, was on some bigger companies that had news to bring. IBM and Oracle were the main sponsors of the event. Their products, of course, are different, but the message was comforting. Linux is in with big business! In his keynote, Hans Bos from Oracle summed it all up: "Basically we don't care what OS runs our database. But Linux is popular. We have a lot of employees that are thrilled about the product." After Oracle ported the software to the GNU/Linux platform, it has been downloaded intensively. After the database, itself, the Oracle Portal tool (to achieve portability of data) is the most popular. Bos added that the Linux platform is very good on performance and ASPs love that.

RMS on threats to free software

The last keynote speaker was Richard Stallman. When he got on stage he struck me as unconventional and charismatic. As I was taking a picture, he stepped forward and waved to the camera, getting a laugh out of everybody. Then, Richard began talking; no fancy slides, just Richard. It's been 17 years since the Free Software movement started. The goal is to make Free Software--Free as in Freedom. This is not a story about software but about Freedom and a helpful community. He then referred to the last part of the project, the kernel as written by Linus Torvalds in 1991. "This project is actually what some people ended up calling Linux." He then discussed the success of GNU/Linux--the GNU OS, including gcc, glibc, and the rest of the key parts of the operating system running on top of the Linux kernel.

Referring to the previous keynote speakers and to the current situation in the market Richard talked about the so-called success of "Linux". He explained it this way: "Linux is the kernel. GNU/Linux is the entire free software you have in distributions." But that is not the most important issue. What do "Freedom" and "Free" have to do with our lives? He distinguishes two goals one can have with the success of Linux: "world domination" or "world liberation".

"World domination", as Linus Torvalds famously put it, is the popularization of Linux. But this vision resembles the proprietary world where the number of users represents a certain monetary value.

"World liberation" is freedom to use the software you want to use. In this philosophy, it's not the number of users that matters, but the number of people whose lives are touched by the freedom that comes with free software. The possible monetary value of the product is not relevant but the moral value is. What do you deliver to mankind?

With GNU/Linux the dream of world liberation has become a reality. But this reality didn't come easy; It took time and struggle to get from nothing, and only proprietary software, to free software. To Richard, it is disturbing to see so many suppliers of "open-source" solutions take the easy way out by using proprietary software solutions when no free software is available. Writing new free software from scratch to meet your needs is the more difficult but pure solution.

In this context Richard referred to the Qt case. Under its original license, Qt was not free software. KDE was built on Qt and, thus, could not be used in distributions that wanted to be based purely on free software. Since there was an interest in getting a Qt replacement, two projects were started: Gnome and Harmony. When Gnome started to succeed, Qt changed their license, first to a free but GPL-incompatible license called the QPL, then to the GPL. Thus, it became ready to be used in distributions.

At this point the speech was interrupted by the following announcement: "Ladies and Gentlemen, please proceed to the main room where in a few minutes Mr. Richard Stallman will begin delivering his speech." Somewhat uncomfortable, he told us not to worry since nobody would come and he wouldn't have to start over. About 100 more people joined the session.

On with the show: No matter how realized GNU/Linux is, there is always a need to watch changes in the market, not just changes that directly affect GNU/Linux, but freedom and software development in general. Richard identified three serious dangers:

Software patents.According to Richard, software patents are dangerous to everyone except for a few multinational corporations. Patents restrict how people can use their computers and, although patents can be licensed, it doesn't mean that companies will actually do so. Richards said that in the US many companies have been crippled by this mechanism. He sees the danger extending to Europe, where this subject is currently hot. Richard explicitly calls for protesting Europe following the US lead in patent law. Later, during the Q&A, Richard called for support of Luuk van Dijk's efforts to fight Euro patents.

Development of hardware with secret usage specs.If you get drivers you get binary-only drivers. The problem here is that you pay for the hardware, but the supplier does not explain how to use the product. Basically, you cannot address your legally bought hardware from your own software. In this respect, Richard mentioned the fact that over 20 million people are free software users. This is a market force with substantial meaning. Many people do not realize the power of selecting another product that is free software ready. He called for selective buying, even if that means buying something less advanced or a little bit more expensive.

Digital Millennium Copyright ActDMCA is a mechanism that basically prohibits free software. In an example, Richard referred to DVD as the Godzilla example. You pay for the content of a DVD but the moment that you write software to view it, you are violate law and are open to prosecution by the movie industry. He described the situation of the person who wrote free software to play DVDs. When he was harassed by the industry, T-shirts appeared with the code and a song was made with the code. The text of the song was posted on the Web. Richard called for support of these kinds of displays as well.

Also during the Q&A, some clarification of the current European software patent situation was given. Remarkable was the charismatic way that Richard gave the people room to talk on stage! To the question "what is your favorite distribution?" Richard answered--of course--"All distributions that are GNU/Linux." When someone asks if Richard can sing a song he starts singing a song about the value of free software. When his speech ends people give him a standing ovation.

ASPs, Software Patents and the Future of the GPL

For me, this is just the beginning, I'm working to get the story straight, and it would be a great help if Richard could help me out. After approaching him, we decide to for lunch. He is very willing to talk, starting with the subject of software patents. In industry, he sees a clear role for patents but with software they are disturbing. He values the freedom of expression, speech and software. This is why the word "free" is so important. The Open Source movement is disturbing, he said, because it works against the basic thought of freedom.

Where is the GPL going? Two new versions are planned for the license. The first one is GPL v. 2.2, which should clarify a couple of things about the current version. First of all, what is the relation between GPL and other licenses? 2.2 will deal with incompatible licenses. Also, the use of the "system library exceptions" (an exception for major OS components that will enable the use of other, non-GPL, free licenses) should be clarified. Richard's work in that issue is not yet completed. The last major change is notable in the fight against the restrictive consequences of software patents. If your software refers to a patent license, the license of that patent should not limit the GPL license in any way. If it can't comply, the patent license is simply incompatible. The 2.2 version should be available "soon".

For the somewhat more remote future, sometime next year, Richard expects to issue version 3 of the GPL. The main issue in that will be the way to deal with Application Service Providers or ASPs. When ASPs serve a GPL application, the GPL does not require them to distribute source code as the GPL only says that you have to provide source code, or offer to provide it, when you distribute GPL software. In GPL v.3, this should be changed to require ASPs to make sources publicly available the moment a user chooses the service. The other change will be a simpler one. Currently, the GPL license only states that sources need to be available. If you distribute free software on a CD-ROM, the sources can be on your web site. Richard would like to see this changed so that sources must be distributed on the same type of medium as the binaries.

As we walk back from the restaurant, I realize what a dynamic movement is taking place. I met people from Italy, Denmark and other nations that were with the FSF. The cry for freedom was loud. When I looked at my watch I saw that the day was almost over. Linux Expo Amsterdam V1 was definitely interesting. After a very commercial start with some keynotes, the freedom-fighter had a different, even conflicting story. But maybe that is what makes Linux--no, GNU/Linux--so incredibly nice: the matter of principle.

Brenno J.S.A.A.F. de Winter runs the De Winter Information Solutions company, http://www.dewinter.com/.

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