Free software communities are often described as being meritocracies -
those who do the most, best work rise to positions of relative power and
influence. The truth tends to be a bit more complicated than that;
though. Politics and social "coolness" play a role in any community; free
software is not exempt from the forces which act on any group of people.
Projects dominated by a single company can also have a tendency to
prioritize corporate control over merit. Even so, in a project of any
size and independence, at least a shadow of the meritocratic ideal can be
seen. Solid contributions lead to respect and influence.
That does not keep people from wanting to tweak the system, however. A
number of projects, for example, would like to find ways to broaden the
definition of merit beyond simple contributions of code. Finding ways to
motivate documentation writers, artists, and reviewers is a common topic of
discussion, for example. There is also interest in making the meritocracy
more fair; that, in turn, can lead to an attempt to codify the merit system
into a formally-described system.
The Debian Developer gauntlet is one longstanding example of a formal
system; nobody can reach developer status without having gone through the seven-step process
of convincing the project of their skills, commitment to free software, and
more. This process is not perfect; in particular, it can take a very long
time for a prospective new package maintainer to be accredited by the
project. But it does help ensure that Debian maintainers are committed and
able to do the job.
Now the Fedora Project is considering a formal
system of its own - but this project, it seems, is not satisfied with
just approving maintainers. Instead, the proposal currently under
discussion would create a full seven levels of developer "merit." These
levels would be:
- FD0: the "probationary" level for new developers. This level grants
the ability to modify one's own packages and to access the source code
management system in a read-only mode.
- FD1: a proper package maintainer. This level adds the privileges of
orphaning one's own packages and subscribing to the glamorous
fedora-maintainers mailing list.
- FD2: Adds the ability to work with packages not specifically protected
against outside access.
- FD3 and FD4: at this level, developers can invite others to
fedora-maintainers and take ownership of orphaned packages. (The
proposal does not give any additional privileges to FD4). Attainment
of these levels might be necessary to be eligible to sit on the
- FD5 is the "sponsor" level which can bring other developers into the
system. Sponsors can control access to packages maintained by
developers they sponsor, give unowned packages to anybody, etc.
- FD6 is the "elder sponsor" level.
Developers who just want to maintain a few packages but who are not
otherwise interested in influencing the direction of the project are likely
to operate at the FD1 or FD2 levels. The proposal suggests that many Red
Hat engineers would find their homes at those levels.
There is a rough set of proposed rules on how promotion through the ranks
would be handled. Some criteria would be established:
Example: FD3 requires 17 quality reviews or 9 owned packages and
shows clear competence in package guidelines. FD4 requires a
history of giving opinions or helping others when needed in
addition to other technical requirements...
Sponsor-level developers would have the power to promote anybody, possibly
with a requirement that a certain number of other high-level developers
agree. There is an interesting suggestion that promotion to the top level
could require votes from a relatively large number of lower-level
developers - promotion from below, in other words. There is a brief
mention of a demotion process as well, though it is short on details.
This whole system may seem rather bureaucratic, and perhaps it is. The
proposal is clear on why the project might want to impose this on itself:
As the project grows, you can't possibly know all contributors on
the other side of the project. Viewing that member's stat page
gives you a convenient snapshot of what they are working on, who
they work with, who sponsored, who promoted, etc.
Fedora is a project which is trying to open itself up in a hurry. Its
developers want to let outsiders come in and take responsibility for pieces
of the distribution, but they are understandably reluctant to throw the
doors open wide. So they need a process; the proposal discussed here
is a starting point for the development of that process. By taking this
approach, Fedora would appear to be breaking new ground in an attempt to
formalize how the meritocracy works. It will be interesting to see how
this experiment works out.
Comments (4 posted)
It would seem that the folks at Dell recently asked their customers for
ideas on how to sell them more systems. The most popular idea: sell
laptops and desktop systems with Linux installed. Dell's response
so far, seems half-hearted. The company will "certify" SUSE Linux (and,
perhaps, some other distributions) on some of their systems, but still will
not offer pre-installed systems. That is a shame; one assumes that many of
the people asking for Linux are not, necessarily, asking for the
character-building experience of installing it themselves. Still, a
"certification" that Linux should work on a given system has its value.
Companies like Dell will start selling Linux-installed systems when they
see that there is money to be made by doing so. Or, if they fail to serve
a real market, other companies will certainly jump in. Helping these
companies see an opportunity in Linux-installed
systems requires that those of us with an interest in such systems let the
vendor know that we would buy them - and that we follow through when the
products are made available.
Pre-installed systems have a number of advantages, starting with the fact
that they are an existence proof
that Linux will run properly on the hardware. Even if the user eventually
upgrades the system or installs another distribution altogether, the
software mix and configuration files which came with the original system
can be invaluable. Not having to put together a working X configuration,
for example, can save a lot of time and pain. This remains true even in
2007, when distributors have been working for a decade (or more) to
eliminate as much installation pain as possible.
By eliminating the installation uncertainties, pre-installed systems lower
the barrier to entry for those who would like to give Linux a try. When
pre-installed, desktop-oriented systems are readily available, it stands to
reason that the overall usage share of Linux in desktop environments will
grow. In time, that growth will bring us greater mindshare - and more
The biggest advantage of all, however, is likely to come from a different
direction. It is well known that certain vendors are not particularly
concerned about whether their offerings work with free software. No amount of
pressure from individual customers is likely to have much effect in
changing their point of view. Should a company like Dell get into the
desktop Linux business, however, that company will have a great interest in
working with Linux-compatible hardware. When large systems vendors start
telling the hardware manufacturers that they need to make Linux-compatible
devices, those manufacturers will tend to listen.
To this end, when we ask for systems with Linux installed, it is good to be
specific: we want systems which work with 100% free software. A system
with binary-only drivers is not the pre-installed "Linux system" that many
or most of us have in mind. If a company like Dell starts shipping
proprietary modules, chances are good that it will discover the associated
hassles (supporting an undebuggable kernel, potential legal issues, etc.)
in a hurry and change its ways. But it would be better if that discovery
phase could be shorted out altogether. Making sure that the vendors know
what we have in mind when we ask for "Linux systems" can only help make
things happen that way.
The plan for World Domination is sometimes a little vague on the details.
Widespread availability of Linux-installed systems is certainly an
important milestone on that plan, one which many of us expected to see some
years ago. The fact that Dell's customers are calling for pre-installed
systems in greater numbers suggests that we may be getting closer to
achieving that objective at last. Perhaps one of these years, sometime
soon, really will be the year of desktop Linux.
Comments (32 posted)
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has sent out an action alert
urging U.S. citizens to support the passage of the FAIR
USE act [PDF]
. This bill is congressman Rick Boucher's latest attempt
to curb some of the worst excesses of the Digital Millennium Copyright
Act. It may well be worth supporting, but this bill falls far short of
what is really needed - especially from the free software community's point
There are some steps in the right direction. One bit of text added to the
DMCA by the FAIR USE act would be:
CERTAIN HARDWARE DEVICES.--No person shall be liable for copyright
infringement based on the design, manufacture, or distribution of
a hardware device that is capable of substantial, commercially
significant noninfringing use.
This is a legal codification of the "Betamax decision" which made it legal
to sell videocassette recorders in the US. It makes obvious sense: just
like knives and cars can be sold despite their obvious potential illegal
uses, gadgets are legal even if somebody can do Something Bad with them.
The text only applies to hardware, though; software gets no similar
protection. And we have already seen how the "commercially significant"
language can bite us; some courts have been happy to see free software as
not being "commercially significant."
The bill puts limits on damages which can be imposed for "secondary
infringement," which, again, should reduce worries for gadget makers who
are afraid of being sued.
Finally, the bill would codify the exemptions to the DMCA's
anti-circumvention provisions which have been approved by the Librarian of
Congress to date. There are six of them, allowing for limited
circumvention for classroom use, to get at obsolete software, to enable
reading ebooks aloud, to bypass the SonyBMG CD rootkit, and a couple of
others. In addition, the bill would create exemptions for those creating
compilations of audiovisual works, skipping commercials or "personally
objectionable content," transmitting content over a home network
(sometimes), getting at public domain works, or performing research,
criticism, or news reporting. In each case, the exemption is for people
"solely" engaging in the exempt activity, so the law will not legalize
DeCSS on the basis that it can be used to skip the leading commercials on
DVDs - something your editor finds highly "personally objectionable."
More to the point, however: this bill does not make any fundamental changes
to the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA. It would make the next
Jon Johansen or Dmitry Sklyarov no safer in the U.S. Anybody writing free
software which can be seen as a circumvention tool would be just as
threatened by the DMCA after passage of this law as before. It is nice
that, say, manufacturers of garage door openers would not be subject to
silly lawsuits, and it is nice that some exemptions would be codified into
law. Perhaps there is enough merit in those changes to make the FAIR USE
act worth passing. But it is not a DMCA reform,
it does not make it legal to distribute a free DVD player in the U.S., and
it does not remove the legal threat against free software developers.
That sort of reform, it seems, is not on the agenda this year.
Comments (7 posted)
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