There are a few issues going on here that need to be disentangled from each other in order to
make sense of it all. One of them is particularly interesting to me (the "we" confusion)
because I was accused of the same thing not too long ago and it really stung. Thus, I am
motivated to engage in this exercise...
I think Mr. Corbet was quite clear at the end of the piece in saying that no one can force
anyone to stop developing free drivers and explicitly stating that it was an admonishment to
each individual developer to consider the consequences of their free software activities in a
particular way. So, while the offending paragraph, taken out of context, might be interpreted
by a reader as suggesting an effort to control the actions of others, that was apparently not
the intent of the piece. Invoking notions of oppressive dictatorships is just inflammatory
That being said, I think Mr. Corbet was also using a rhetorical style similar to the one that
I was called out on once; that is, using the pronoun "we" in an imprecise way, assuming that
the reader would interpret it "correctly" each time. This is what I think lies at the root of
the controversy stirred up by this piece. Mr. Corbet is addressing an audience that is
generally affiliated with the Free Software movement to some degree, but which is quite
diverse within that spectrum. He is usually very successful at this tricky task by
maintaining an objective distance, crafting solid arguments and drawing fairly unprovocative
conclusions. In this case, the argument is a provocative one and the fact that the audience
is heterogeneous makes the word "we" ambiguous, especially when it is attached to assumptions
about motives and goals.
The Free Software movement sees software freedom as improving the human condition and works to
promote that freedom. But, the Free Software *movement* is not a coherent organization with
any official structure. There are no membership criteria, no elections, no rules. Thus, no
one can presume to speak for all of those who might consider themselves to be a part of that
movement. Each separate event might appeal to the minds of some in the movement, but probably
not to all and not uniformly. Take, for example, the anti-DRM work being undertaken by the
FSF. Is it just "free market" economics? If it's self-injurious to the perpetrators, why not
just let the market sort it out? Is it even relevant to the Free Software movement? These
are all controversial points, I think. Each person may take a different stand and yet all
might consider themselves to be part of the Free Software movement.
At the same time, the Free Software movement is an embattled and diverse minority, which is a
tricky thing to navigate and not to be handled lightly. Tactics and philosophies differ, and
people aren't clear on why that is. So, confusing "we, the community" with "we, those in this
movement who believe as I do" is easy to do.
An embattled minority is also in need of constant encouragement: to keep fighting, to not lose
hope, to remember its successes and learn from its failures. Mr. Corbet is very good at
encouraging this movement. In a diverse movement, however, encouragement can seem
presumptuous when the motives of the author and the reader don't align... which leads me to
my last point...
I believe the author (Mr. Corbet) here is conflating the goals of two distinct currents in the
Free Software movement: the "moralists" and the "pragmatists." The moralists' goal is a
world with 100% free software so that no one can be harmed by the evils of proprietary
software. The pragmatists' goal is wider acceptance and use of Free Software, to the point
that it makes life better/easier for some people.
In this piece there is an emphasis placed on pragmatism (leverage against for-profit entities,
perceived benefits, market competition, etc.) and at the same time there is an implied moral
judgment in favor of free software (proprietary -> bad; GPL -> good). This could leave some
readers with the impression that the author is making arguments about tactics for an
inherently amoral medium (markets) based on moralist principles. I think I've detected this
conflict many times on LWN, but it's hard to delineate. It is usually successful in
straddling the divide in the community, but it is also open to criticism from both sides.
That can also give some undeserved credibility to certain forms of weak criticism. The
criticism here, for example, is essentially a laissez faire or libertarian argument that no
one should tell anyone what to do and that free software will rise or fall on its merits and
that that is acceptable (i.e. there is no morality).
This argument, when boiled down to its essense, is hard to swallow. People in the Free
Software movement generally recognize that it is in a minority position and that the current
dominant players have rigged the system against it (software patents, litigious front
companies, exclusive OEM deals, rigged votes in standardization bodies, etc.). Having no
coherent plan or strategy is just foolish in the face of such entrenched interests. The
market doesn't operate on merit.
Moreover, attacking people who are debating and proposing strategies as if they were trying to
impose their will on others is disingenuous and counterproductive. Everyone has the right to
express their opinions about strategy; since no one can force them upon others, they could
never *be* attempts to do so. Therefore, they must be considered to be, at most,
exhortations, addressed to a diverse but generally interested audience. These ideas will be
received to varying degrees and some may adjust their thoughts and/or actions because of that.
That is the most that one can do in a loose confederation.
I also feel the need to point out the gains that have been won for the Free Software movement
through coordinated action. Linus and the other core contributors coordinate kernel
development (and there is even an annual conference for planning how to do it!), resulting in
an unprecedented pace of development. The FSFE launched a coordinated attack against software
patents in Europe and actually defeated software patent legislation in the EU! The EFF
coordinates and plans their legal strategies for fighting for digital freedom; result:
http://www.eff.org/victories. The DefectiveByDesign (DBD) team coordinates their actions to
expose the evils of DRM; one could argue that their success in spreading this awareness is at
least partially responsible for the recent abandonment of DRM in music. And each free
software project with more than one worker (developer, artist, marketer, etc.) is a
microexperiment in coordination; each finds its own balance, but coordinate they must.
Result: there are thousands of free software packages to choose from that allow for hundreds
of GNU/Linux distributions to meet the needs of millions of users worldwide.
The upshot: let the debate continue, because an embattled minority must always been
questioning its strategy, but if all you're essentially saying is "shut up," then you're not