For a long time, Broadcom 43xx wireless interfaces had no free Linux
driver. Happily, a dedicated group of developers reverse engineered the
device, and, over time, were able to create the missing driver. In the
process, they implemented some features which were not available in
Broadcom's proprietary driver. Not wanting their code to become part of
the proprietary version, the Linux bcm43xx developers chose the GPL for
their code - a choice that most other Linux driver developers make as well.
More recently, the bcm43xx developers noticed that the OpenBSD "bcw" driver
looked very much like their code. It would appear that the developer of
this driver looked to the Linux code for inspiration and took a bit more
than just ideas. GPL-licensed code is meant to be shared and reused, but
it is not meant to be relicensed unilaterally by third parties. So
the bcm43xx hackers decided to talk to the OpenBSD developer about the
apparent copying which had taken place.
Unfortunately, their message was copied to
a rather large number of people, along with a few mailing lists.
The response from the OpenBSD side took two forms, neither of which will be
at all surprising to those who have watched how that community operates:
- The OpenBSD developers do honestly care about the provenance and
legitimacy of their code. So the claims were taken seriously; OpenBSD
leader Theo de Raadt remarked
"This is a major problem in our code base" and said that
the issue would be resolved.
- Those developers immediately launched a counterattack as if they were
a beehive which had just been hit by a rock. They complained about
the wide distribution of the mail, tore into the bcm43xx developers
(example: "You are a very poor
example of humankind"), repeatedly put down the "precious GPL,"
and, inevitably, dragged their maintenance of OpenSSH into the
discussion. To many, it looked like an overt attempt to attack the
messenger and take attention away from the real problem.
In theory, this situation should be simple to resolve. The OpenBSD
developer, Marcus Glocker, has acknowledged
the problem and stated that he was aware of it before the discussion
began. He says:
I wanted to make some quick progress (maybe too quick), and rewrite
the functions in question after seeing some first success, e.g.
receivment of first frames, which isn't the case right now.
The bcm43xx developers have said from the outset that they would be willing
to relicense at least some of the affected code. The two groups should be
able to sit down, talk things through, and end up with everybody being
That has not happened. Instead, we got a nasty flame war, the outright
deletion of the OpenBSD bcw driver, and the bizarre sight of Theo de Raadt claiming that he is the person with
"at least some fucking empathy in my soul." That is not how
things should have gone. There need be no enmity between the Linux and
BSD communities; when something like this happens it's worth looking at why
in the hope of avoiding a recurrence in the future.
The initial contact from the Linux side was clearly mishandled. When
licensing issues come up, the generally-accepted first step is a quiet,
polite, private message seeking a solution. People rarely respond
well when the first communication about a problem is broadcast to the
world. Had the bcm43xx developers conducted a private chat with the
OpenBSD bcw developer, chances are that the issues would have been worked
out with relatively little fuss. Most developers are interested in solving
problems, after all.
The OpenBSD crowd also missed its chance for a quiet solution when it went
on the attack. Attempts to divert the discussion through ad hominem
attacks, profanity, and general bluster will never lead to a civil
conversation or a peaceful resolution of a problem. Deleting the bcw
driver (and blaming the Linux community for its loss) seems childish at
best. The use of OpenSSH as a sort of trump card is just strange, and a
Needless to say, it would also have been better if the code had not been
used contrary to its license in the first place. But
code licensing issues are complex. In a world where vast amounts of code
are floating around under mutually-incompatible licenses, the occasional
problem is certain to turn up. That's why the "open source licensing
compliance" companies are able to make a living. But licensing
disagreements between free software projects are rarely so intractable that
they cannot be solved by rational discussion. The next time a situation
like this comes up - something which is certain to happen, sooner or later,
and the Linux community might just find itself on the other side of the table
- we can only hope that all of the people involved will approach a solution
in a way which allows that rational discussion to take place.
Comments (103 posted)
LWN's review of the Nokia
(published in March) was rather strongly criticized
one commenter who felt that the "partly open" nature of the device had been
skipped over. The commenter also wished that Nokia's abandonment of the
770 tablet had been discussed. He has a point, and recent developments
merit another look at this issue.
Back in January, Ari Jaaksi, Nokia's head of open source software
about the fate of the 770:
However, please remember that 770 is already an old product. It was
announced 1.5 years ago and that is a long time! However, it is a
good product and Nokia supports it fully and keeps on selling it,
too. It is just that technology keeps on developing and we want to
offer better hardware to our customers.
Few people would disagree with the goal of offering better hardware over
time - we have all come to expect that, actually. But that does not mean
we want our old hardware to turn into paperweights, so the "supports it
fully" statement was taken as a good sign by Nokia 770 owners. Many of
those owners are expressing their
disappointment, however, now that Nokia has started closing bugs with a
message saying "WONTFIX. No fixes to N770 anymore." It seems
they had thought that "supports it fully" meant that the product was, well,
Nokia's Quim Gil has clarified what Nokia
means by "full support":
"Nokia supports it fully" means at least that the End-User
Software Agreement is still valid and Nokia 770 customers can make
use of all their rights, same as before the N800 and the IT OS
 were launched.
In other words, 770 users can expect the device to not turn into a brick
overnight, but not a whole lot more. Mr. Gil does go on to say that severe
security problems would be fixed, but that seems to be about the extent of
it. There are no plans for another system software release for the 770.
There is an OS 2007
on 770 project which is working at porting a version of OS 2007 (the
version running on the N800) to the 770 as a "hacker edition," but some
parts of it work better than others, and it's not likely to be what many
770 owners had in mind. The hacker edition will not be a supported
It's tempting to say that, since the 770 is a Linux-based device, the
community should be able to support it into the future. As long as people
care about the platform, it should continue to work. The problem is that
the 770 contains a fair amount of non-free software at all levels. It
seems that Nokia's agreement with Opera prohibits them from providing a new
version of the browser for the 770. Some of the power management code is
are various other pieces of the system. So, even if the "hacker edition"
can be made to work, it will be a system with a number of binary blobs in
important places. That will severely limit the degree to which the
community can support the platform; it's a slow death sentence for the 770
There have been calls for the opening of the tablet software. The same
message from Mr. Gil talks about why that was not done in the first place:
The maemo and IT OS versions that have been developed for the 770
(and the N800) reflect the degree of openness that has been
feasible within the context, schedules and resources available for
these projects. Yes, there has been also this discussion about how
open all this should be, but a big weight of the decisions have
been carried by project management decisions. People used to
community driven free software development need to understand (I'm
still learning at it) how different the picture is when you develop
inside a corporation and together with a hardware production
An obvious counterargument would be the One Laptop Per Child project which
is successfully developing high-quality hardware and software under tight
deadlines in an
entirely open manner. That notwithstanding, the 770 project is long
finished, so Nokia should be able to release the relevant source now.
Unfortunately, such a release
appears not to be in the cards:
From a Nokia Corporation perspective open sourcing components might
be a slow process even if all the parties involved have a clear and
common wish opening a specific source code. If we are talking about
hardware drivers, the process might be *really* slow. Therefore,
there are little chances that the solution for 770 customers comes
from Nokia opensourcing components, really.
Note that the "slow" argument applies only to the hardware-specific
components. A release of higher-level software is even less likely:
The UI is different, it was decided to have it closed in order to
protect it from changes and deviations out of the control of the
Mr. Gil's postings include a number of statements to the effect that things
will be better in the future. He says:
We are learning, and we are applying the new lessons to the current
strategy. N800 customers (and developers targeting this device)
will received and improved support. We will provide details as soon
as we approve the new plans, currently under discussion.
There are hints that more components will be opened in the future as well,
but no promises. The end result is that the 770 will, for many users, hit
the end of its useful life much sooner than it should have, and that the
N800, while hopefully lasting longer, may well encounter similar issues.
This state of affairs is unfortunate, it makes a nice piece of hardware
less valuable than it really should be.
On a different front, users of the proprietary NVIDIA drivers should be
aware, by now, that the company has decided to drop support for a number of
its products from the latest driver release. Here's a
list of supported (and dropped) adapters for the curious. The older
hardware can still be run using the "legacy" driver, but not all features
This loss of support can be a problem for users; it is also a problem for
the few distributors which make these drivers available. Ubuntu, in
been contending with this issue. Including the "legacy" driver adds a
support requirement over time. It also adds some interesting twists to the
"feisty" upgrade: some systems will have to "upgrade" to the
"legacy" driver, while others can go to the current module. One assumes
they will work everything out, but it is a hassle that nobody needed. And
it could have been avoided by simply making the driver be free software.
Comments (22 posted)
A disgruntled Fedora user recently complained
about how the distribution's
policies "sometimes suck." It seems that this user had attempted to use an
obscure OpenOffice.org feature which is available under some distributions,
but which is not available on Fedora systems. This feature, it turns out,
is implemented with a piece of closed-source code, which Fedora is
unwilling to ship.
Your editor has a gripe as well. For a period of time, his Rawhide desktop
contained the Emacs 22 pre-test releases from the FSF. Once Rawhide picked
up those releases, however, your editor happily stopped building his own.
But the Rawhide version of Emacs lacks the Tetris game found in stock
Emacs. The end result is that your editor has to use his editor for actual
work instead of pointless block stacking.
Rather than start a lengthy flame war, though, your editor simply chose to
avoid procrastination and get something useful done.
Fedora, like any complex project, offers plenty of opportunities for
criticism; some of those have appeared in these pages in the past. But this
sort of feature removal is not one of those opportunities. Anybody
who uses the Fedora distribution should understand the constraints the
project operates under. They include:
- Fedora is committed to shipping 100% free software. Any software
which is not free doesn't belong in this distribution.
- Fedora is tightly tied to Red Hat Inc. and cannot do things which
expose Red Hat to lawsuits. So software which could attract patent or
trademark litigation must be obtained from somewhere else.
Sometimes it seems like Fedora cannot win. The distribution takes regular
grief for its omission of patented codecs, non-free office suite
components, binary drivers, etc. But those who appreciate free software
rarely credit the project for the extensive work it has done to ensure that
everything it ships is free. Fedora users benefit from Red Hat's support:
without that support, there would be far less developer time, bandwidth,
publicity, etc. available to the project. Dragging Red Hat into unneeded legal
hassles would benefit nobody but the lawyers; Fedora users have an interest
in avoiding that eventuality.
One might well wonder why certain Fedora users feel the need to repeat
these complaints so often. Perhaps the project is not doing an adequate
job of communicating what it is trying to do. One assumes that, if people
understood what Fedora is, they would not complain about it not being
something it can never be.
Comments (22 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition
- Security: What to do about DNS?; New vulnerabilities in ipsec-tools and man-db.
- Kernel: Toward a safer sysfs; Too many kernel threads; The SLUB allocator.
- Distributions: Building a High-Performance Cluster with Gentoo; New releases: Debian GNU/Linux 4.0, Debian GNU/Linux 3.1r6, Aurora SPARC Linux Build 2.98, Puppy Linux 2.15 CE; New distributions: Linux for Clinics, NixOS
- Development: Introducing the OCRopus Project, Compiz and Beryl merge,
new versions of SQLite, Project Earth, Sendmail, Remo, Ardour, Asymptote,
GNOME, TCExam, Atom, LedgerSMB, Globulation2, Alerttail, Pantheios, colorsvn.
- Press: Stallman on GPLv3, Corel responds to WinDVD, Mobile phone Linux expansion,
using lighthttpd, Nagios book excerpt, Vim tips, reviews of Dolphin,
Ekiga, Emacs Muse, Fullerscreen, Ikiwiki, PeerFS, XMP, new Linux Foundation
- Announcements: Gaim becomes Pidgin, Harmony letter to Sun, new LinuxChix leader,
Nokia SDK for S60, Novell joins The Green Grid, Sun opens Storage Community
code, LSB updated, LPI and VCampus training portal, DEFCON cfp,
Storage Security and Survivability Workshop cfp, Sun's CommunityOne,
FOSS Symposium, GCC Internals workshop, JavaOne conf tracks,
Linuxfest Northwest, Power Software Summit, LAC t-shirts.