BT et C

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Some Questions of Narrative

This pay-for-play arrangement may be standard operating procedure among high-tech companies and academic labs, but it represents a big change for Linux, which first gained favor among hippie-esque programmers who disdained revenue and profit, advocating a "peace, love and software" vision of Linux as a free operating system developed without regard for corporate interests.
-Daniel Lyons, Peace, Love, and Paychecks

I've been meaning to do a hopefully-comprehensive writeup on the various narratives people (especially, it seems, people in oldguard power centers such as Forbes magazine) use to explain the F/OSS zeitgeist. Lyons's work stands as a sort of epitome. The article quote above has the sub-headline "Linux began as a labor of love by hippies and hackers. Now the suits are cutting checks and running the show". The articles is dated September 20,2004.

Well, it turns out that there is a pretty good book on the influence of 60s counterculture on computer science and especially on the development of personal computers. Alas, the book does not get into the Linux era, so it neither refutes nor denies the Lyons assessment.

One of the pillars of the modern materialistic personality is a belief in a rigid dichotomy: on the one hand, there are ideals and principles; on the other, there is pragmatic daily business, the desire to get things done quickly.
This vision of the world informs an assertion I come up against pretty regularly: that "philosophy is useless" or -- what's more offensive -- that philosophy is harmless, a diversion from "the real world", a playful indulgence for which we grownups offer a condescending dose of tolerance.

Makes me ill. But back to Lyons. He adopts the foregoing reductive view of human action as consistently as anyone, and it has occasionally led him into some baffling situations.

Let us take another piece, "Linux's Hit Men". This is a cursory look at the fact that the Free Software Foundation expects users of its software to comply with the GNU General Public License. The article opens with reference to SCO's lawsuit against IBM. This, of course, is irrelevant to the topic at hand; its inclusion and the dubious segue ("But the spread of Linux could be hurt by another group") should probably be chalked up to the need to grab attention by referring to high-profile news.

The article concludes with a line I find downright bizarre: "Such a pity, comrade." Unless I'm missing something, this is supposed to evoke communism.

You see, in the Lyons dichotomy there are basically two groups of people. 1) Proprietary software companies, who can be characterized as pragmatic, business types; and 2) Linux "crunchies" (no, I don't know what a crunchy is), who exhibit in turn the properties of hippies, communists, anarchists, druggies etc. Generally speaking, this is a quick 'n' easy viewpoint from which to describe computer news, at least well enough to satisfy the editors of Forbes.

But when one is covering the "Linux Hit Men" story it becomes problematic. Because what is actually happening is *not an attack on private property (Cisco's LinkSys routers) by "comrades". It is a run-of-the-mill enforcement of the terms of a license. When Lyons discusses SCO's alleged copyright interest in UNIX code, he uses the metaphor "intellectual property rights" to describe these situtations.

Lyons can't believe that
Under the license, if you distribute GPL software in a product, you must also distribute the software's source code. And not just the GPL code, but also the code for any "derivative works" you've created--even if publishing that code means anyone can now make a knockoff of your product.

Imposing *requirements on the distributor of source code doesn't square with -- with what? The Free Software Foundation's principles? No, it doesn't square with Lyons's commanding dichotomy in which free software is more-or-less the same as free love, or world peace, or whatever. Having helped to construct and reinforce the myth of the Linux Hippie, Lyons now finds their pragmatic, realpolitik actions strange. He even suggests that they're hypocritical.

There is a difference between the way that proprietary companies and the FSF handle issues like this, and the difference is described in a clear, sane fashion elsewhere:

"This is nothing new. [Disputes over software licenses] go on every day with proprietary software -- but there, the stakes are so much larger."

"If this were a Microsoft license violation," Perens continues, "Cisco would be in huge hot water. This is very small in comparison. Violating commercial licenses often costs companies millions of dollars. We're just asking them to go forward following the GPL. We don't ask for money, just future compliance."

"I just want this to be resolved peacefully," reiterated Perens.

To be continued...


Post a Comment

<< Home