The Debian Project's social
is that project's guiding philosophy. When the project
considers a decision or an action, consistency with the social contract is
one of the first requirements. Debian developers are also concerned with
freedom, as witnessed by the endless battles over what should be done with
the "non-free" repository.
These two issues came together this month when the
project's developers approved the first change to the contract since 1997.
Where Version 1.0
"Debian will remain 100% free software," the new version says, instead,
"Debian will remain 100% free." The new wording requires that the Debian
system and all its components
conform to the Debian Free Software
Guidelines. This change was clearly aimed at bits and pieces of non-free
materials that have been present in Debian since the beginning: firmware in
drivers, GFDL-licensed manuals, etc.
Whether intended or not, the new wording has already claimed a big victim:
the upcoming "sarge" release. The next major release of Debian is already
far later than had been hoped - but that is not particularly surprising for
a Debian release. What is surprising is that release manager Anthony Towns has let it be known that the new social contract
will delay things further. The sarge release, as it stands now,
does not conform to the newly-reworded social contract. Given the overt
nature of the changes to the contract, Anthony does not believe he can just
look the other way and release regardless. Most Debian developers would
appear to agree with his interpretation of the contract.
In practical terms, this means that a lot of changes will have to be made
to sarge before it can go out. The GFDL-licensed documentation (for small
packages, like the C library) will have to be removed. Support for
hardware requiring binary-only firmware downloads will be removed. The
installer will have to be rewritten so that people who happen to have the
firmware for their (otherwise unsupported) hardware can install the
system. It has also been noted that a lot
of fonts may have to be removed from Debian as well. All in all, Anthony
figures that, with these changes, there is no chance that sarge will be
released this year.
The Debian Project, in other words, is in a bit of a bind. The current
Debian stable release is approaching a truly geriatric state; few users are
much interested in GNOME 1.4, KDE 2.2, XFree86 4.1,
Mozilla 1.0, Netscape 4.77 (!), gcc 3.0, or the 2.2
kernel at this point (though, in fairness, there are 2.4 kernels available
for woody as well). This release has done its time; it should not be
expected to last into 2005. Somehow, if Debian is to remain relevant
to anybody beyond those using the (occasionally scary but always highly useful) unstable
version, it is going to have to find a way around this problem and get a new
One possibility is this new general
resolution which is tentatively set for a vote in the second half of
May. This resolution would create a "sarge exception" by revoking the
social contract change - but only until the beginning of September, when
the new language would, once again take effect. This resolution would
enable the project to get a release out (and, incidentally, impose a deadline
on that release) under the old rules. Subsequent distributions could then be purged
of offending materials at relative leisure.
In the longer term, Debian is going to have to come to a conclusion about
where its priorities truly lie. Despite the incredible progress made over
the last 20 years, creating a 100% free system is still a very hard thing
to do. Most of us will never have the source to the firmware running in
our network controllers. Maybe someday we will have 100% free fonts, but
that is not this day. There will always be disagreements over which
licenses are truly free - as witnessed by the fact that Debian is fighting over
documentation licenses that have passed muster with Richard Stallman. Any distribution
which insists on 100% purity is going to have a hard time producing a
system that is actually useful in the near future.
As Ted Ts'o puts it, this episode may be a
fortunate thing in that it will force a debate over the project's goals. If Debian
is really about making the best possible system, the developers will
eventually get back to that task.
If instead, it turns out there are significant numbers of people
who believe their participation in Debian is really more about
proving that they are Holier Than Stallman, those that *are*
interested in making something useful for their users have their
choice of either (a) trying to see if they have the votes to
shut-out the fanatics, (b) try to build something useful that uses
Debian as a base, and leaves the insanity behind, or (c) join the
Fedora project, or some other distribution.
Others see things differently, however:
The goal of Debian is to have an excellent free operating system.
All three adjectives: excellent, free, and operating, are
non-negotiable. We will not sell out the second because you want
us to think it's a disaster if one or two fonts don't meet it.
In other words, the social contract change, its aftermath, and the
philisophical differences behind it
risk creating a fork in the Debian distribution. One might argue that
this fork has already happened; look at UserLinux, for example. Such a
fork would be an unfortunate thing; the Debian Project has been a
technological and philosophical leader of the community for many years.
One can only hope that Debian will figure out how to reconcile its goals
and continue in that role well into the future.
Comments (34 posted)
The 2nd annual
Desktop Linux Summit
was held at the Del Mar
fairgrounds, North of San Diego, California on April 22 and 23, 2004.
The event was sponsored by Lindows
several other companies.
Attendance at the event was busy, but not overwhelming,
the folks at Lindows said that there were over 1000 attendees, about
twice the draw of the previous event.
There were relatively few Linux-specific companies and organizations in the
vendor booths, Lindows occupied many of the booths, and several
vendor-neutral hardware companies were present.
As the conference's name implied, the focus was about the placement
of Linux on the desktop, both in corporations and at home.
During the event, there were several recurring
coming from the panel members and the audience.
While many individuals and companies have been attempting to displace
Microsoft from its position of dominance on the desktop, there was a
growing feeling that doing so is an incredibly difficult task,
especially in the US market.
It is nonetheless, a task that many are still working hard at to accomplish.
A large percentage of individual and corporate computer users
have been tied to the Microsoft way of doing things for a long time,
and they are very resistant to change, even if it means saving a lot
of money. Never underestimate user inertia, as a former
co-worker of mine is fond of saying.
It's hard to compete with the big guys on their own turf.
Also, the perpetual inability to purchase both desktop and laptop
computers with Linux pre-loaded was brought up frequently. This is a major
factor that is slowing Linux adoption by the public sector.
A common theme in the event was that Linux has become a
that it may achieve world domination through a process other than
replacing the Microsoft-based PC.
The majority of the world's population has never had access to a computer
(or a phone line, or a power grid).
For people in this group who are just getting access to power and telecom
resources, the choice between a secure, free (as in beer and as in freedom) operating system with tons of free applications,
versus a virus-vulnerable, expensive, or pirated operating system is
fairly easy to make. For third-world and emerging countries with little
pre-existing technological infrastructure, Linux-based systems are a
fairly appealing solution. Linux is also acting in a disruptive manner
by entering in on the low end equipment such as PDAs and
cell phones. Over time, these devices have begun to perform an
ever-increasing share of the tasks formerly done by desktop computers.
Another observation is that Linux on the desktop has become fairly
mature, reliable, and repeatable. Most of the basic components are
already in place. The operating system is reliable, the basic desktop
components such as browsers, mail clients, and office suites are
available, and reliable. There is, on the other hand, a notable lack of financial
applications for Linux, none of the major commercial software vendors
have ported their applications to Linux.
Open file exchange formats were seen as both a strength and a weakness
for Linux. For those dealing with Linux, the ability to use
open file formats is a big plus, mainly because access to their own
information will be possible for the foreseeable future. Lock-out due
to changing proprietary file formats is not likely under Linux.
The inability to reliably
exchange files with the ever-changing proprietary formats from
Microsoft was seen as a big obstacle in the adoption of Linux.
That is also an obstacle to Microsoft's own customers,
locking them in to a never-ending path of buying upgrades and
having to convert older information forward.
There is a notable shift in the browser arena, desktop browsers are
rapidly losing ground to cell phone and PDA-based browsers.
This is causing
people who create web pages that are only viewable in Microsoft's
Internet Explorer to lose viewers.
On the amusing side, one of the popular T-shirts at the conference
referred to recent SCO actions with "So, Sue Me" in big
letters. The gun show that was being held in the adjacent building
was mentioned a few times.
Lastly, the current generation of PCs are increasingly being seen
as being too fat for the desktop, both in hardware and software.
Current PCs are power hungry devices that are loaded with
multimedia equipment, giant hard drives, big memory, etc.
Individual PCs now have hardware and software that
is as complicated as the servers of just a few years ago, along
with the associated systems administration requirements.
There is a push toward making corporate desktop machines into
simple, replaceable appliances. Of course, this may just be another
swing of the pendulum in the oft-repeated cycle
between centralized servers with dumb (X)terminals, and loaded desktops.
The fully loaded multi-media boxes are increasingly headed for use as
home entertainment centers.
A number of different platforms were discussed as lightweight
desktop appliances. Linux-based thin clients, diskless clients,
Sun's Java desktop system, and laptops were all contenders for this
The Desktop Linux Summit
presentations and panel sessions
are covered in more detail. Take a look for coverage of
the international expansion of desktop Linux,
Ian Murdock's talk on Componentized Linux, Doc Searls on
making Linux the Chevy Cavalier of operating systems,
an analyst's view of the current state of Linux on the desktop,
mainstreaming the Linux desktop, Nat Friedman on the evolution
of the Linux desktop, and what Lindows is up to.
Comments (4 posted)
Just in case anyone needed further proof of the dangers of software patents,
along comes Forgent
trying to wring money out of users of the JPEG standard long after it has
become entrenched. After two years of trying to wheedle licensing fees for
JPEG, the company announced last week that it was suing 31 companies,
including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Panasonic and Macromedia to name just a few,
for infringement of U.S. Patent 4,698,672, entitled "Coding System for
The company has been trying to monetize the '672 patent since 2002, and has
managed to extract licensing fees from more than 30 companies, including
Sony, to the tune of $90
million for use of the JPEG format. Forgent isn't exactly modest in its claims. In
its press release, Forgent claims to have:
...the sole and exclusive right to use and license all the claims under the
'672 patent that implement JPEG in all "fields of use" except in the
satellite broadcast business. Forgent's "fields of use" for licensing
opportunities include digital cameras, digital still image devices,
personal digital assistants (PDAs), cellular telephones that download
images, browsers, digital camcorders with a still image function, scanners
and other devices used to compress, store, manipulate, print or transmit
While Forgent presses on with its claims, others have expressed doubt as to
whether the patent claims would stand up. The JPEG committee has issued statement saying that the
committee "believes that prior art exists in areas in which the
patent might claim application to ISO/IEC 10918-1 [the JPEG standard] in
its baseline form." The statement was issued back in 2002, when
Forgent initially began asserting patent claims.
There seems to be some confusion over the actual expiration date of
Forgent's patent as well. According to Forgent, the patent expires in
October 2006. Others are saying that the patent is set to expire this
October, seventeen years from the date the patent was granted. The
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's (USPTO) website seems to support
Forgent's position. According to the USPTO FAQ, patents granted prior to
June 8, 1995 "automatically have a term that is the greater of the
twenty year term discussed above [from the application date] or seventeen
years from the patent grant." The patent application was submitted
October 27, 1986 and granted October 6, 1987 which gives Forgent a little
more than two years to harass software companies making use of JPEG.
The Independent JPEG Group (IJG),
responsible for widely-used JPEG library (libjpeg), makes no mention of the
Forgent claims on its website. In fact, the IJG makes little mention of
anything on its website, including valid contact information. The README
that comes with the JPEG library says that the software avoids the
arithmetic coding of the JPEG specification due to patents owned by IBM,
AT&T and Mitsubishi. No mention is made of the '672 patent. However,
IJG organizer Tom Lane was quoted
two years ago as saying that Forgent's patent does not apply:
The patent describes an encoding method that is clearly not like what JPEG
does. The patent describes a three-way symbol classification; the closest
analog in JPEG is a two-way classification. If the jury can count higher
than two, the case will fail.
At the moment, open source developers do not seem to be in a rush to remove
JPEG capability from their projects, but are instead taking a
"wait-and-see" attitude. The topic has come up on Debian-legal,
mailing list and other project lists. So far, no project has come out to
say that they would be pulling JPEG support, much to this writer's
relief. A quick count shows that more than 150 packages installed on my
system depend on libjpeg.
Even if Forgent's claims amount to nothing more than a nuisance for a
handful of proprietary software companies, they still highlight a problem
for open source software. Companies will continue to press software patent
claims so long as the legal system permits, and there's money to be
made. It's only a matter of time before one of the suits has a serious
impact on open source.
Comments (10 posted)
Last week, we discussed BayStar's wish to reclaim its investment in the SCO
Group. Some observers may have thought that this move was a sign that
BayStar had figured out the true nature of the company it had invested in.
That may, in fact, be true, but not quite in the way some people had
imagined. BayStar's real problem, it would seem, is that SCO continues to
maintain the pretense of having a Unix business; BayStar sees that as a
distraction from the real "value" of the company: its lawsuits. To regain
BayStar's good favor, SCO would need to dump the Unix business and replace
its top management with people who know more about intellectual property
litigation and, while they're at it, have better control over what they say
in public. SCO seems unwilling to give in to those demands, but if BayStar
looks like it will go to court, SCO's board may find itself in a more
Groklaw has done some
research into the background of Bert Young, SCO's new chief financial
officer. Mr. Young, it seems, is not new to dishonest companies and legal
action. He should, indeed, be a good fit for SCO.
In the IBM case, SCO has filed a new
asking that IBM's copyright-oriented counterclaims be dismissed or, failing
that, split into a separate trial. SCO claims that the copyright issue is
"pending in litigation in Nevada" and need not be considered separately in
Utah. The Nevada case is the AutoZone suit. Given that copyrights are an
issue in the IBM case, the chances of it being put aside for the
newly-filed AutoZone case seem pretty small.
...especially since AutoZone has filed a motion
of its own stating that SCO's suit should be put on hold pending the
outcomes of the IBM, Novell, and Red Hat cases. Since those cases touch on
issues like the validity of SCO's claimed copyrights and whether Linux
violates those copyrights, AutoZone seems to think that their outcome might
have some relevance to the charges it is facing. It will also, no doubt,
surprise readers to find out that AutoZone is having a little trouble
figuring out exactly which copyrights it is being accused of violating:
There is no reason for SCO to have been so obtuse in its pleading,
unless SCO is intentionally trying to avoid identifying the nature
and basis of its purported claims. The Linux code is freely
available to anyone to examine, and SCO has been in possession of
the code for years. Indeed, SCO was a distributor and developer of
Linux code until after it filed its lawsuit against IBM last
year. SCO therefore has substantial familiarity with, and can
readily identify, the lines, files, or organization of Linux code
that it claims infringes UNIX, and SCO can likewise readily
identify the corresponding lines, files, or organization of UNIX
that SCO claims to be infringed....
In other circumstances, AutoZone might elect to respond to SCO's
Complaint as best AutoZone could without clarification of SCO's
claims in confidence that it could later ascertain this information
from SCO in discovery. However, SCO's "hide-the-eight-ball" tactics
in the IBM case leave AutoZone with little realistic belief that
SCO will voluntarily identify the basis for its claims without this
Court's intervention. SCO filed its Complaint against IBM more than
a year ago; yet, at least as of April 18, 2004, SCO still had not
provided IBM with any reasonable identification of its claims.
One might conclude, from all of this, that AutoZone has been paying
attention to what has transpired thus far and is not in a mood to settle.
DaimlerChrysler has filed a
response to SCO's complaint (which, remember, is all about
DaimlerChrysler's failure to provide the "certification" demanded by SCO).
The text of that response is not yet available, though Groklaw may well
have it by the time you read this. DaimlerChrysler has, evidently, raised
a long list of affirmative defenses, and is asking for a summary dismissal
of the case with prejudice.
Worth a quick note: according
to the NASDAQ, there were almost 4 million shares of SCO stock
sold short as of the middle of April - an all-time high. Despite the fact
that the company's stock is pushing toward its lowest levels in almost a
year, many people seem to expect it to go lower. LWN is not in the
business of giving investment advice, and you would be well advised to
ignore us if we were. But it is worth noting that, at current volume
levels, it would take almost three weeks of trading to cover all of those
short positions. That is a recipe for a "short squeeze" and a stock price
spike. Be careful out there.
Comments (1 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition
- Security: Two quick book reviews; New vulnerabilities in ident2, kernel, lcdproc, racoon, XFree86.
- Kernel: Reiserfs and external attributes; Deceptive <tt>MODULE_LICENSE()</tt> strings; The cost of inline functions; Single-threaded workqueues.
- Distributions: Gentoo after DRobbins; Gentoo 2004.1; Conectiva Linux 10; Fedora Core 2 t3; Turbolinux 10 F; Cobind Desktop reviewed
- Development: The Gnu Compiler Collection, Version 3.4,
new versions of JACK, Speex, DSPAM, CUPS DDK, CherryPy, Ganymede, PyX,
gnome-pkgview, gThumb, Gnome Jabber, FreqTweak, OpenOffice.org,
AbiWord, Evolution, Emacs Common Lisp, Perl, PMD.
- Press: Windows vs Linux installation, GNOME 3.0 wish list, killer apps,
GPL in German court, de Icaza interview, Nessus howto, Scribus DTP review.
- Announcements: MandrakeSoft profits, GNOME / Mozilla joint meeting, Real World Linux Slides,
Ludum Dare game contest, Linux Audio Conference update, new LinuxQuestions
- Letters: Response to Langa