Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

Defending the 99%

In the context of a fairly recent discussion of Free Software licence enforcement on the Linux Kernel Summit mailing list, where Matthew Garrett defended the right of users to enjoy the four freedoms upheld by the GPL, but where Linus Torvalds and others insisted that upstream corporate contributions are more important and that it doesn’t matter if the users get to see the source code, Jonas Ă–berg made the remarkable claim that…

“It’s almost as if Matthew is talking about benefits for the 1% whereas Linus is aiming for the benefit of the 99%.”

So, if we are to understand this correctly, a highly-privileged and famous software developer, whose position on the “tivoization” of hardware was that users shouldn’t expect to have any control over the software running on their purchases, is now seemingly echoing the sentiments of a billionaire monopolist who once said that users didn’t need to see the source code of the programs they use. That particular monopolist stated that the developers of his company’s software would take care of everything and that the users would “rely on us” because the mere notion of anybody else interacting with the source code was apparently “the opposite of what’s supposed to go on”.

Here, this famous software developer’s message is that corporations may in future enrich his and his colleagues’ work so that a device purchaser may, at some unspecified time in the future, get to enjoy a properly-maintained version of the Linux kernel running inside a purchase of theirs. All the purchaser needs to do is to stop agitating for their four freedom rights and instead effectively rely on them to look after everything. (Where “them” would be the upstream kernel development community incorporating supposedly-cooperative corporate representatives.)

Now, note once again that such kernel code would only appear in some future product, not in the now-obsolete or broken product that the purchaser currently has. So far, the purchaser may be without any proper insight into that product – apart from the dubious consolation of knowing that the vendor likes Linux enough to have embedded it in the product – and they may well be left without any control over what software the product actually ends up running. So much for relying on “them” to look after the pressing present-day needs of users.

And even with any mythical future product unboxed and powered by a more official form of Linux, the message from the vendor may very well be that at no point should the purchaser ever feel entitled to look inside the device at the code, to try and touch it, to modify it, improve or fix it, and they should absolutely not try and use that device as a way of learning about computing, just as the famous developer and his colleagues were able to do when they got their start in the industry. So much for relying on “them” to look after the future needs of users.

(And let us not even consider that a bunch of other code delivered in a product may end up violating other projects’ licences because those projects did not realise that they had to “make friends” with the same group of dysfunctional corporations.)

Somehow, I rather feel that Matthew Garrett is the one with more of an understanding of what it is like to be among the 99%: where you buy something that could potentially be insecure junk as soon as it is unboxed, where the vendor might even arrogantly declare that the licensing does not apply to them. And he certainly has an understanding of what the 99% actually want: to be able to do something about such things right now, rather than to be at the mercy of lazy, greedy and/or predatory corporate practices; to finally get the product with all the features you thought your money had managed to buy you in the first place.

All of this ground-level familiarity seems very much in contrast to that of some other people who presumably only “hear” via second- or third-hand accounts what the average user or purchaser supposedly experiences, whose privilege and connections will probably get “them” what they want or need without any trouble at all. Let us say that in this dispute Matthew Garrett is not the one suffering from what might be regarded as “benevolent dictator syndrome”.

The Misrepresentation of Others

And one thing Jonas managed to get taken in by was the despicable and continued misrepresentation of organisations like the Software Freedom Conservancy, their staff, and their activities. Despite the public record showing otherwise, certain participants in the discussion were only too happy to perpetuate the myth of such organisations being litigious, and to belittle those organisations’ work, in order to justify their own hostile and abusive tone towards decent, helpful and good people.

No-one has ever really been forced to choose between cooperation, encouragement, community-building and the pursuit of enforcement. Indeed, the organisations pursuing responsible enforcement strategies, in reminding people of their responsibilities, are actually encouraging companies to honour licences and to respect the people who chose such licences for their works. The aim is ultimately to integrate today’s licence violators into the community of tomorrow as honest, respectable and respectful participants.

Community-building can therefore occur even when pointing out to people what they have been doing wrong. But without any substance, licences would provide only limited powers in persuading companies to do the right thing. And the substance of licences is rooted in their legal standing, meaning that occasionally a licence-violating entity might need to be reminded that its behaviour may be scrutinised in a legal forum and that the company involved may experience negative financial and commercial effects as a result.

Reminding others that licences have substance and requiring others to observe such licences is not “force”, at least not the kind of illegitimate force that is insinuated by various factions who prefer the current situation of widespread licence violation and lip service to the Linux brand. It is the instrument through which the authors of Free Software works can be heard and respected when all other reasonable channels of redress have been shut down. And, crucially, it is the instrument through which the needs of the end-user, the purchaser, the people who do no development at all – indeed, all of the people who paid good money and who actually funded the product making use of the Free Software at risk, whose money should also be funding the development of that software – can be heard and respected, too.

I always thought that “the 1%” were the people who had “got theirs” already, the privileged, the people who promise the betterment of everybody else’s lives through things like trickle-down economics, the people who want everything to go through them so that they get to say who benefits or not. If pandering to well-financed entities for some hypothetical future pay-off while they conduct business as usual at everybody else’s expense is “for the benefit of the 99%”, then it seems to me that Jonas has “the 1%” and “the 99%” the wrong way round.

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