The opening keynote speaker for the 2008 Linux-Kongress was James
Bottomley, who presented his views on the Linux community's values. What these
values are, says James, is not entirely obvious. Related groups - the free
software community, for example - have well-articulated value systems which
define them. The Linux community's values are not so clearly expressed,
but, he says, they are central to what we do.
James started with a bit of history, noting the the initial value placed on
software was entirely commercial. Once the industry realized that software
could be worth far more to its users than it costs to create, the
proprietary mode became dominant - and that has affected the evolution of
programming in general. The value placed on the code by its developers
became irrelevant, leading to "paycheck coding." There is no value placed
on creativity, and such a model leads to bad code.
Eventually Richard Stallman came along and challenged the commercial view
of software. But, during this time, about the only alternative to
commercial software was the BSD Unix distribution, and that got caught up
in the lawsuit by ATT. So closed software took over; Windows won on
commodity platforms, but proprietary software also became dominant in the
In 1991, Linux hit the scene; since then, it has become the most popular
and vibrant free software operating system available. In a sense, this is
interesting, in that Linux is licensed under the GPL, a license that many
companies hate. Apple explicitly chose BSD as the base for MAC OS to
avoid GPL-licensed code. But, despite this antipathy, lots of companies
use Linux, and even contribute to its development. It is interesting,
James says, to look at why that is.
The reason is the Linux community's values. In particular, the community
prizes technical merit above all other considerations - including small
things like what any company or user would like to have. Also prized is
passion; code supported by a developer who clearly cares about it will
generally fare better in the review process. If the code quality and the
passion are there, the community does not care about much of anything
else. Factors like the source of the code or who might benefit from its
incorporation don't really matter.
In particular, contributors to the kernel are not required to sign on to
any particular belief system or any specific view of freedom. A
contributor may have an FSF-like belief in free software, or, instead, be a
corporate developer who does not care about software freedom at all. Even
the BSD community requires acquiescence with a specific view of freedom. A
Linux contributor, instead, need only be willing to contribute the code
under the share-alike rules of the GPL.
As a result, anybody can play with Linux, regardless of philosophy or
corporate status. We have a community which is defined by contributions,
not by a specific set of values regarding software freedom. That has
allowed the formation of a very diverse community with a specific shared
interest: creating the best kernel we can.
There are some significant benefits from this approach. It forces
companies to recognize their engineers' values; that, in turn, makes for
more motivated developers. Developers who are interested in improving
Linux can get resources and support from corporations. Users get
high-quality code from developers who care about what they are doing.
Companies get the ability to focus on their little piece of the problem
while taking advantage of the community-maintained kernel for the rest;
they can also offload their older code to the community for long-term
James compared the Linux way of doing things with the US constitution.
That document only mentions freedom three times, yet it has become a
blueprint which has supported freedom for over 200 years. It is a
relatively short document. The proposed EU constitution, instead, is about
20 times the length, before taking into account other documents which are
referenced. That document would appear to be somewhat bloated; the goals
would be better served by a more concise formulation.
Similarly, the Linux community spends little time talking about freedom.
Instead, the focus is on a set of brief principles involving code quality
and passion. Freedom is not legislated; it arises as an emergent
value inherent in the Linux way of doing things. Linux has managed to
bring about software freedom without talking about it, and without imposing
a view of software freedom on its contributors. In the process,
Linux has succeeded in creating something which is as free - or more free -
than the GNU system envisioned by the Free Software Foundation.
During the question period, James wished for a free software advocate who
would argue the point with him, but no such person emerged. He will, it
seems, have to repeat the talk in a different venue before he can have that
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