Petty politics are invading the freeware community

Not everything is rosy in the freeware community. Sometimes it engages in the silly little political games that remind one of university political groups.

In my days at Toronto’s York University, I recall the tables set out every lunch time by groups protesting all sorts of things, but the only thing they fought more than the status quo was each other. The socialists hated the Maoists, who despised the Marxists, who wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room as the communists — you get the idea.

A milder form of this is unfortunately surfacing across the free software world:

GNU founder Richard Stallman attacks publisher Tim O’Reilly, claiming that O’Reilly’s successful Nutshell books have hurt the cause of free software. Stallman complains that because the books are so good, fewer people are volunteering to write free documentation. “If you can’t write a free manual, then please write no manual,” is the message.

O’Reilly then snubs Stallman, not inviting him to talk at the first Free Software Summit.

Referring to Stallman as “That crazy guy from Boston” in a Salon magazine interview, self-proclaimed Linux spokesmodel Eric Raymond declares GNU’s ideology a “handicap” to Linux acceptance (

Demanding his appropriate credit, Stallman insists there is no such thing as a Linux system — only “Linux-based GNU systems.” He even advocates changing the name of Linux to Lignux. Linus Torvalds and most Linux advocates are not amused, though one Linux packager meets him halfway and calls its product Debian GNU/Linux (

Demanding to be heard, the developers of BSD start complaining they’ve been unfairly ignored as Linux becomes the media darling. FreeBSD founder Jordan Hubbard finds a friendly soapbox at Performance Computing magazine, which publishes an opinion piece ( and a cartoon showing the Linux penguin impaled on the trident of the BSD’s mascot devil.

Raymond coins the term “open source” which is quickly copyrighted by Software in the Public Interest (SPI). Soon after, an SPI’s co-founder, Bruce Perens, quits and forms the Open Source Initiative together with Raymond, and claims the trademark goes with him. SPI protests, and asks for public input (

And you thought the only good soap operas left were in the world of pro wrestling.

An examination of these public spats offers glimpses into Linux’s accelerated growing pains. First of all, they’re out in the open. The very openness of the process that beget Linux, GNU and BSD causes differences of opinion — that would be kept quiet in most software corporations — to be aired in public.

This is both a blessing and a curse. While it can certainly provide an interesting spectacle, it offers a level of public input and accountability that exists nowhere else in the computer world.

Still, this would matter little if there wasn’t so much friction. Linux is mushrooming in popularity (one IDC survey put its server market share growth at more than 200 per cent last year), and a small cadre of would-be celebrities has sprung up, clearly led by Raymond who has created what some are calling a “Halloween document industry”. There is some merit to the charge — Raymond’s latest product is called “Halloween 4” even though it was released just weeks ago (

Drawing an analogy between the Linux crowd and Robin Hood’s men, his piece offers humour that only Microsoft-hating propellerheads could love. It offers a form of Linux hero worship (Linus Torvalds is Robin, naturally) with prominent participation from “Friar Eric” written in.

To be sure, the Linux world has produced other spokespeople; one could argue that even this column serves such a purpose. But when the ego behind such promotion takes itself too seriously, there is inevitably conflict. The wrangling over the ownership of the term “open source” is clearly such a legacy of inflated heads — even once the ownership is resolved, what is it worth? What would it cost to enforce?

Furthermore, why are people even trademarking terms that are designed to become part of the common lingo? One would hope this pettiness would just fade away — and it likely will.

Leibovitch ( is a partner in Starnix Ltd., a VAR and consulting firm specializing in Linux and Unix in Brampton, Ont. He is also a director of the Canadian Linux Users’ Exchange.