This is a read-only archive. Find the latest Linux articles, documentation, and answers at the new Linux.com!

Linux.com

Feature: Free Software

Linus explains why open source works

By Bruce Byfield on August 10, 2007 (9:00:00 PM)

Share    Print    Comments   

Linus Torvalds is often described as an open source champion, interested in licensing only insofar as it affects his ability to share code and improve software more quickly. However, his real position is more complicated -- and to some, perhaps surprising.

Asked point-blank which is more important, sharing code or empowering users -- the declared goal of the free software champions whom Torvalds is routinely depicted as being in opposition with -- and his first response in what he calls "the usual Linus polite words" is "That's a really stupid question. Why do you put it as an 'either or' kind of concept?" He then goes on to explain that, because open source operates in the same manner as scientific query, and is a matter of enlightened self-interest, sharing code and empowering users "are not at odds at all" -- a view that, in the end, places him closer to the free software position than either free software or open source followers might care to admit.

Torvalds has been quoted many times about his emphasis on sharing code, especially during the debates about the recently released third version of the GNU General Public License (GPL). Most famously, in an interview with Forbes magazine in March 2006, Torvalds explained his preference for the second version of the license by saying, "The GPLv2 in no way limits your use of the software. If you're a mad scientist, you can use GPLv2'd software for your evil plans to take over the world ('Sharks with lasers on their heads!!'), and the GPLv2 just says that you have to give source code back. And that's OK by me. I like sharks with lasers. I just want the mad scientists of the world to pay me back in kind. I made source code available to them, they have to make their changes to it available to me. After that, they can fry me with their shark-mounted lasers all they want."

However, responding recently to the question of whether code sharing or user empowerment was more important, Torvalds makes clear that such quotes are only half the story.

Torvalds begins his explanation by talking about science, implying that free and open source software development falls into that category. The dichotomy in the question, he says, "makes no sense. Science clearly does empower humans, but, the fact is, it does so because it has hit on a working model of the universe, and the reason it has done that is because it has a process in place for getting there that works. Sharing information is a small part of that model.

"Human inquisitiveness is an even bigger part. The fact is, what's most important is people. How they are inquisitive, and want to figure out and control the world. How they all have that selfish interest in improving their own lot in life, and almost by mistake they then end up improving other people's lot in life, too, by uncovering some small detail that explains a bit more about the universe.

"The same is true of open source. It's not about 'sharing information' per se: that's just a small part of it -- it's a part of the tools to create better software."

Nor is open source about altruism in Torvalds' view. Instead, he sees it as a matter of enlightened self-interest. "That is worth celebrating: the constant individual struggle to improve your own standing. That little selfish person who tries to take advantage of everybody else by making the minimal possible outlay (preferably by using mostly the source code that somebody else has done) and incrementally improving it with relatively small effort."

The short-term result of this attitude, Torvalds says, is that "for a while, that person gains an advantage, because now the tool did what he wanted. And in the longer term, we all gain that knowledge. One small and meaningless advantage at a time, and it just builds up and up.

"That is where it's at. It's about 'empowering everybody' by letting some enterprising users empower themselves, and then taking advantage of it for everybody else."

The worldview that Torvalds expresses here helps to explain why he has been so vocal in his opposition to the latest version of the GPL, and plans to stay with the second version. No doubt past clashes with the Free Software Foundation color his outlook, but the conflict is more fundamental than one of different personalities.

For Torvalds, the problem with the provisions for patent-sharing and for restricting the use of lockdown technologies -- what the Free Software Foundation prefers to call TiVoization -- is that they keep some people out of the free exchange of ideas that characterizes open source. "That's the whole point of open source -- different people and entities have different goals, and the very differences are what makes it work well for everybody," he says. "Anybody who tries to hobble science by saying that they won't share information with people they dislike (the military, for example) is seen as an obvious crackpot and idiot. The same, to me, is true of open source."

However, amid the echoes of ongoing conflicts, what is even more important is the often overlooked fact that the distinction between free software and open source philosophies is not as great as it is frequently made out to be.

Torvalds is understandably cautious about journalists' uses of his words. He points out that they often use quotes to say what they don't have the courage to say for themselves, and that how people represent him tells a lot "about the opinions they hold." Yet, even so, Torvalds' denial of the dichotomy between the supposed aims of the two camps suggests that the differences between free software and open source are not so much a matter of philosophy, but a matter of tactics to realize that philosophy. While the Free Software Foundation tries to reach those goals by legal means, open source advocates like Torvalds suggest that all that is needed is for people to act as people normally do.

From this perspective, Torvalds' views highlight a fact that has often been overlooked in the recent GPL debates: free software and open source supporters are allies. They may be uneasy allies, blowing raspberries at each other and slinging mud at each other at every opportunity, but they are allies all the same. It's a fact worth mentioning, simply because it hasn't been repeated much recently.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

Share    Print    Comments   

Comments

on Linus explains why open source works

Note: Comments are owned by the poster. We are not responsible for their content.

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 91.123.69.54] on August 10, 2007 10:10 PM
Good article, put a spotlight to Linus we have never seen before. And yes, Free software and Open Source are sisters. Uneasy ones, but together, working with different methods, but in same direction.

#

Well said..

Posted by: Dean Henrichsmeyer on August 10, 2007 10:20 PM
This is one of the better pragmatic pieces on open source I've read. Helps to have decent commentary from one of the successful leaders of open source as well. Good approach.

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.131.192.247] on August 11, 2007 12:17 AM
It's very simple.

Open source is like a (relatively) free market - you do what you want. To the degree that what you do helps others, you prosper. But we'll put some restrictions on what you do in order to encourage you to do what we want.

The FSF is like socialism - or state-enforced liberalism, take your pick: we'll MAKE you do what WE want you to do to help others.

Linux likes the GPLv2 which requires that source code be provided AND that products which incorporate source code under the GPL also provide the enhanced source code. This is closer to the FSF software model than a truly free market - but not so close as GPLv3 is.

In my view, relying on a license model to change the world is fundamentally flawed. In that respect, I disagree with both Linus and Stallman. In both cases, they are in some sense, "coercing" people to do what they want with their product - by withholding that product unless an agreement to do what they want is made. I disagree with that. In my view, the only "true" freedom is: you trade fairly and without restrictions. Which means, either give away the product as public domain or charge for it in the commercial sense but without restrictions on use and without legal enforcement of "intellectual property."

That is the ONLY way to truly speed up the development of inventions to benefit the species and to empower individuals.

But nobody has the nerve to live in a society organized under those lines - because they're afraid they wouldn't be able to compete.

It's all about the fear.

#

another "either/or"

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.80.248.177] on August 11, 2007 06:43 AM
"In my view, the only 'true' freedom is: you trade fairly and without restrictions. Which means, either give away the product as public domain or charge for it in the commercial sense..."



Again with the "either/or." A programmer, developer, or other copyright holder can license the software as they wish, under GPLv2, GPLv3, BSD, public domain, proprietary, or something else. That is the most basic freedom. Fear may or may not have something to do with the license choice.



Both the copyright holder and the end user have obligations to know the license and its implications. Ignorance is not an excuse in this case when facing unintended consequences.

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.76.156.25] on August 11, 2007 01:25 AM
I know this post will be off topic. There is an issue with linux.com website that i want to talk with you about. I've wrote a small article on by blog. http://cop.tfm.ro/internet-advertising-in-a-very-wrong-way/
It's about the adds displayed on this site.

#

Re: defective adds on linux.com

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 127.0.0.1] on August 12, 2007 02:09 PM
You are right!

These types of adds must be removed from linux.com




But I can't see any adds on my browser! ;-)

#

Re(1): defective adds on linux.com

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.169.163.241] on August 13, 2007 03:06 AM
And neither one of you can spell. It's 'ads', not 'adds.'

#

Re(2): defective adds on linux.com

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.161.44.19] on August 13, 2007 04:58 AM
How presumptuous! How do you know they are seeing ads? Maybe these jokers are talking about the adds that Cousin Itt left on there.

#

Does Linus know that the Open Source has become the laughter of the donkeys?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 66.166.120.11] on August 11, 2007 01:39 AM
I would guess so, since he seems to have noticed the GPLv3 effect on those trying to snub FSF as they successfully did with the Open Source.

#

LF calls for respect for Microsoft?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 66.166.120.11] on August 11, 2007 02:33 AM
Are you kidding me?
" Open source vendors have to recognise that Windows is here to stay and that together with Microsoft it will form a duopoly in the market for operating systems. "
I guess it's time to move on to a Linux-free Operating System.
ESR now that you found your Windows-clone operating system, it is time to fade into oblivion.
Ah and Linus, the "we know what the users' needs are" is Microsoft (tm) logo, not yours. Remove please this "blob" from your speeches.
Open Source, haha what a joke!

#

Re: LF calls for respect for Microsoft?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 75.15.73.122] on August 13, 2007 05:56 AM
Wow, pretty weak attempt at commentary.

#

Re: LF calls for respect for Microsoft?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 208.101.129.129] on August 14, 2007 03:36 AM
Haha! Troll! Can you say...."I'm an idiot?"

#

That old canard

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.80.34.124] on August 11, 2007 03:04 PM
"Nor is open source about altruism in Torvalds' view. Instead, he sees it as a matter of enlightened self-interest" This is nothing more or less than u.s. cultural values, that people are essentially greedy and whatever panders to their greed will be successful and whatever doesn't will fail. The fact that human society for it's entire existence has been, without exception, a communal culture is completely ignored. Linus may mindlessly bleat the values of his adopted country but that doesn't mean those ideals are any more true than they were before. The capitalists may espouse the values of greed over altruism but the fact remains that they are not acting out of individual greed. They take part in a collective culture that keeps them at the top and in order to keep others from challenging them they sell this idea that they are only greedy individuals. Thus ensuring any challenger that emulates what they claim to believe will fail for lack of community support.

#

Re: That old canard, and other silliness

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.26.158.70] on August 11, 2007 05:05 PM
I don't agree with everything you've said here. Capitalism and individualism are found all over the world. There's a reason that Hong Kong has so many billionaires, and that Sweden has one of the world's richest men (founder of Ikea). But I think you're right in that the enlightened self-interest/altruism divide is what separates Linus and some of the other Open Source people from the FSF and the Free Software crowd. Stallman believes in altruism, and in setting up a system that rewards it. Linus only believes in self interest. And I think Linus is wrong and naive in his position. At a minimum, an open market needs rules enacted for the common good. Without those rules and vigorous enforcement, some will always abuse the system. The GPL v2 is one set of rules governing the Free Software market. It's a good set, but it can (and should) be improved, because some have found ways to abuse the market it set up.



And clearly, there is a difference between empowering individuals and sharing code. Suppose the manufacturer of the famous printer whose proprietary code inspired Stallman to start the Free Software movement had given him the code, but used DRM to lock down the software in the printer. He would have had the code, but he still would have had a buggy printer. The FSF has always taken a user-centric approach. The kernel hackers generally take a developer-centric approach. Everyone is a user, but only some users are developers. I side with the FSF.



If Linus really thinks he's right on these issues, he should license the kernel under the LGPL v2 rather than the GPL. That would be less coercive to potential users of the code. But I doubt it would work nearly as well.

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.129.205.126] on August 11, 2007 03:48 PM
My balls are made of steel.

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 77.181.80.111] on August 11, 2007 05:10 PM
Considering that the U.S. is the worlds domiment country, and the whole "Western World" more or less successfully runs its society on enlightened self interest means that there is probably something to the theory. Someone who supports it isn't mindlessly following the capitalism line, you may disagree but do it with a little more respect for an opposing and non-stupid viewpoint.

#

Re: Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.80.34.124] on August 11, 2007 06:58 PM
whoooosh.

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.83.179.170] on August 11, 2007 10:23 PM
As long as business mind sets of greed and hierarchal organization remain the norm open source is itself at risk. Witness, for example, the NTFS file system used by M$oft. It was developed by the US government and it was freely available to the public. However, thru whatever llegal chicanery, it is now a M$oft copyright. How do you avoid high level piracy such as this? Only a government truly dedicated to the general welfare can prevent this, and the US government, in its present form, seems unwilling and incapable of standing up to corporate garbage. Goodluck, and watch your backs!

#

Re: Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.110.22.133] on August 12, 2007 04:52 AM
As much as I dislike Microsoft, I must declare a Wikipedian Protest against you.
http://xkcd.com/285/

[citation needed] for your claim that NTFS was originally developed by the US government.

#

Re(1): Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.110.22.133] on August 12, 2007 04:55 AM
...Linux.com doesn't permit line breaks within comments? That's going to bork a lot of comments around here.

#

Re(2): Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 127.0.0.1] on August 12, 2007 02:16 PM
use "br" into minus/major "<>"


line2



line3


:-)

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.110.22.133] on August 12, 2007 04:59 AM
Strange. I wasn't aware that there was a difference between "Open Source" and "Free Software" before I read this article. I thought they were the same thing, with the same goals of empowering users and sharing technoligical advances. Am I too optimistic?

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 86.9.27.170] on August 12, 2007 04:02 PM
I'm with Linus on this one. As a cross-platform developer, I have no particular vested interest in either Windows or Linux taking the crown for best OS. What matters is that they are both available, so that we have the choice of which to use - use the best one for whichever situation you're in.

That said, his attitude of "enlightened self-interest" is exactly what attracts me to his point of view. The Free Software Foundation claim to promote freedom, but to me the GPLv3 stands against freedom by restricting commercial uses. I have no issues with commercial use of any open source product so long as the changes to the source are available, either publicly or on request.

#

Re: Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.169.163.241] on August 13, 2007 03:10 AM
What a pity that GPL3 does not allow commercial interests to lock up GPL code in devious ways. Tivoization is against the spirit of GPL2; GPL3 merely makes it explicit. You're on-purpose forgetting it's not your code you're so casually throwing to the wolves.

#

The invisible hand

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.144.212.186] on August 12, 2007 10:13 PM
"Nor is open source about altruism in Torvalds' view. Instead, he sees it as a matter of enlightened self-interest."

Can we say Samuel Adams? It's nice to know that true capitalism is still alive.

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 222.154.253.105] on August 13, 2007 04:20 AM
this is a great interview, good work Bruce

#

Linus is a cranky old man

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.169.163.241] on August 13, 2007 06:17 AM
Nah, it's the same illogical position Linus has always had. He's happy to turn a blind eye to GPL2 violations, never mind that the vast majority of kernel code is not his. Kernel devs have complained about this before, but because He Is Linus nothing gets done about it. He has said many many times that he is neither a lawyer nor a politician, and is not interested in law or politics, yet he opines frequently and at length on both as they affect software development. Methinks it is time for Linus to shush and let more sensible people, who do not let an irrational hatred for the FSF color their judgment, to take over kernel leadership. Or at least shoo him away from licensing and other legal decisions.

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 203.123.182.27] on August 13, 2007 09:43 AM
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 83.23.4.106] on August 13, 2007 08:11 PM
Bruce thanks for another very interesting Article. Keep up the good work. Regards
<a href="http://www.profesjonalna-reklama.pl" target="_blank">Pozycjonowanie</a>

#

Re: Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 84.133.244.62] on November 02, 2007 05:46 AM
Nice work Bruce. very helpful article. saved it! Greetz <a href="http://www.fitness-am.de">Creatin</a>

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.250.71.18] on August 15, 2007 03:31 AM
Torvald hit the nail on the head. GPLv2 is all about karma and paying back for what you take. I wonder how GPLv3 is going to alter the mindset of much of the open source world? And the closed source world?

Only time will tell.


--

Dustin Puryear

Author, <a href="http://www.puryear-it.com/pubs/linux-unix-best-practices">Best Practices for Managing Linux and UNIX Servers</a>

<a href="http://www.puryear-it.com">http://www.puryear-it.com</a>

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 124.7.112.93] on August 16, 2007 09:23 AM
The linux is very good operating system which has many flavours. What a normal user need to work with pc. Documentation, listening music, playing games and some work for programming or else.

Just we can get it in linux with many distro's. ubuntu is one such kind.
The open source is spreading its word for users who can experimentand use linux.

#

Ask Linus questions about the kernel not FLOSS

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 216.239.73.149] on August 16, 2007 05:43 PM
He is a great coder and I respect his work.
I dont respect his behavior, nasty personality traits and condescending atittude (I believe the common expression is 'a**hole) which automatically demeans anyone who doenst agree with him. We can say that he is a 'character' and all nice little excuses but that's all we are doing.

And honestly, there is nothing he can add to a FLOSS discussion because he acts like he above it all and doesnt care, almost like a child
whistling as it passes by a graveyard hoping really hard that nothing bad is going to happen. IP threats, SCO, Novell/Linspire/Xandros, he believes that if we do nothing, everything will resolve itself.

"Torvalds suggest that all that is needed is for people to act as people normally do."
Yes, I am sure that in his world the sky is purple and filled with dancing fairies too.
In the real world, people will lie, cheat, steal and take every little advantage they can to succeed. That's why every society has laws and boundaries to make sure that someone doenst try something. Even the 70's hippie idealists like RMS believe that.


Fine, I have no problem this predictable interview but Id rather hear Bruce Perens, Eben Moglen or others talk about open source, GPL and other important aspects.
Coders should stick to coding.

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 81.233.216.24] on August 19, 2007 12:23 AM
From source to no source...thats the question ?
I spend more time correcting propeier code than open code "OK not the code but the software & securety"
been a big fan of open source and Linux fore over teen years now but
its still a petty to see the gaps between the two camps fight together instead...

Linux whit minimal problems for 10 of years
the easynes of installing windows is fare from beyond its security settings and yes i do believe
Linux can fly someday i wouldent build a car on a cardbordbox i would use real steele and kevlare

and yes aim a big fan of IKEA´S founder he started out from scratch by cykling in the nighberhod selling pencils and matches
and when you see him giving an interjuv on telly he's a down to earth Man both feet´s on the earth...

/MVH Gnuru
PS in my case OpenSource is fare more competive than many of its big bucks companys
and i now way you may build a company to earn bucks and i still think opensource i still open ewan if you make a buck ore two .....

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.59.158.209] on October 10, 2007 03:19 PM
Thank you very much for this interesting Article, very useful information....
<a href="http://www.yellobook.eu" target="_blank">yellowpages</a>

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.12.123.121] on November 12, 2007 03:36 PM
Thank you for the interesting article about Linus and also the following discussion regarding this topic. http://www.webtechnik.net/

#

nice!

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 85.216.28.134] on November 18, 2007 10:34 AM
Thanks for the interesting board discussion. Open Source is a real good method of software engineering and should be promoted more and more!
<a href="http://www.mein-kurzurlaub.de">Kurzurlaub</a>

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 80.144.34.147] on December 11, 2007 02:21 PM
Hi there, I think it's good that both are available so that we can choose which one to use (depending on the situation). Thx
<a href="http://handel-schneider.de" title="Handel">Handel</a>

#

Linus explains why open source works

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.236.163.214] on January 04, 2008 09:56 PM
Really enjoyed reading this. Linus is a hero and its great to hear what his mindset is. I didn't realize he had such a great sense of humor. The 'Shark with Lasers' comments are priceless. I guess Dr. Evil was a big fan of Linux and Open Source software ;) <a href="http://www.javasigns.com/decals">window decals</a>

#

This story has been archived. Comments can no longer be posted.



 
Tableless layout Validate XHTML 1.0 Strict Validate CSS Powered by Xaraya