There's more to FOSS than the Linux Foundation

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Aug 12, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

As a Canadian, I'm always irked by airy statements by Americans that they won World War II. Yes, the Americans entry into the war was decisive, but their side was not called the Allies for nothing, and many other countries contributed to the victory or at least kept the fight alive in the years before the United Stated joined in. With all respect, I feel much the same way about the recent interview on with Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation/

Published to coincide with this week's LinuxCon in Boston, the interview begins by describing Zemlin as "part legal guardian, part keeper of the flame. The non-profit foundation he runs is charged with promoting the growth of Linux, drafting new industry standards for its use, and defending it against legal challenges."

To be clear, let me emphasize that these are not Zemlin's words. Nor, do the words in any way reflect the attitudes expressed by Zemlin or any of the Linux Foundation staff with whom I have had dealings over the years. Zemlin in particular, has always seemed to combine helpfulness and enthusiasm with far less ego than you might expect from someone with his level of responsibility.

Nor would I deny for a moment that the Linux Foundation has done a reasonable job of representing the corporate face of open source and the Linux kernel. Not only does the Foundation seem to be a genuinely neutral meeting ground, but its support for major developers like Linus Torvalds, Till Kamppeter, and Theodore Ts'o benefits everyone in free and open source software (FOSS).

What's wrong with this picture?

While this introduction is the fault of neither Zemlin nor anyone else at the Linux Foundation, it irks me so much that I had trouble reading the rest of the article.

Part of the problem is that many people reading the introduction are likely to confuse the Linux kernel with the operating system that is often called by the same name. The Linux Foundation may be the theoretical legal guardian of the kernel, but many parts of the operating system are defended by groups like the Free Software Foundation's compliance lab or Harald Welte's GPL Violations. And let's not forget the work of the the Software Freedom Law Center.

Similarly, "keeper of the flame" reads to me as another half-truth. I think you can accurately call the Linux Foundation the representative of the FOSS community in the corporate world, but Jim Zemlin personally? Although the FOSS community is growing and changing, there's still enough of a bias towards developers that most people would apply the phrase to Linus Torvalds rather than Jim Zemlin. Google searches show 40,300 hits for "Jim Zemlin," but "1,320,000 for "Torvalds."

More importantly, "keeper of the flame" ignores all the other figures that are central to the community. For instance, while some people may consider Richard M. Stallman yesterday's man, you only have to look at his almost continuous speaking schedule to realize his importance for others, particularly outside North America.

And what about Eben Moglen, Jeremy Allison, Jon "maddog" Hall, Georg Greve, Pamela Jones, Mark Shuttleworth, Patrick Volkerding, Larry Wall, Bob Young, or any of several dozen other names of those who have promoted the dream of a free operating system and keep it alive? Such keepers of the flames work in areas that the Linux Foundation have yet to focus on, and many were doing so long before the Foundation was established in 2007.

Just as the American entry into World War II benefited the Allies and gave them additional strength, the emergence of the Linux Foundation has helped to coordinate the FOSS community, and to give it a stronger voice in the commercial world. Such a contribution should not be denied. Yet neither should anyone deny that, just as other countries were fighting the Axis prior to December 1941, so dozens of projects and non-profits were promoting and defending FOSS years before anyone had even thought of the Linux Foundation.

Even today, the heart of the FOSS community depends very much on what you happen to be involved in. If you contribute to a large project like GNOME or KDE, or a distribution the size of Fedora or Ubuntu, the greater FOSS community may barely impinge on your awareness. If you are a kernel developer, then these projects and distributions may hardly seem to exist. If you are a free software advocate, then the Linux Foundation may be largely irrelevant to you. And so it goes, no position being right and wrong, but simply reflecting the diversity of the community.

Celebrating diversity

Descriptions like the one in are a common journalistic device. By focusing on one person at one organization, a writer hopes to make the subject more immediate and personal. Perhaps, too, a tight focus helps to simplify a complex situation for those who know little about it.

Nothing is wrong with this device in the abstract; I'm sure I've used it myself. In practice, though, this particular use of it is a distortion.

Part of the strength and appeal of the FOSS community has always been its diversity -- its lack of a single focus. To describe any part of that community so extravagantly that the rest seems not to exist is, in the end, a disservice. Jim Zemlin and the Linux Foundation deserve coverage, but I would much prefer to see them discussed more in relation to the greater community. Zemlin does try to give this context later on in the article, but, after being framed by such an over-simplification, his words can easily be overlooked.

Just as emphasizing the Allies were a diverse group does not denigrate the American contributions to World War 2, so I think that making the same observation about the Linux Foundation in no way denigrates what it has done for the FOSS community. It is simply a matter of fairness, perspective, and accuracy.

I have no doubt that the Linux Foundation (which is, after all, an alliance within the general alliance) would agree.


  • Not just the name

    The name is only part of what I'm talking about. Even if you accept the use of "Linux" for the entire operating system (and millions do), that doesn't change the impression that one recent organization is responsible for the whole thing.

    It may be that many journalists are so conditioned by proprietary software that it just seems logical to them that one organization must be in charge.
  • A new name for the composite system?

    If you really do wish to hold this position, then perhaps you can find some name for the composite system that people commonly call "the Linux operating system", or list along with other operating systems with equally inprecise (but well-understood) names like "PC" or "Apple".

    There is, in effect, only one operating system using the Linux kernel, and there is only one kernel in the Linux environment. Differentiating by distribution (which does tend towards one mosaic of kernel, OS, desktop, etc) is even less equitable.

    I imagine that in the absence of an alternative, "the Linux OS" will persist.
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