Linux Kernel Developers Embracing Authors Embracing Licenses

Linux Kernel Developers Embracing Authors Embracing Licenses

Lars Linden (Department of MIS, University of Central Florida, Orlando, USA) and Carol Saunders (Department of MIS, University of Central Florida, Orlando, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-197-3.ch010


In June 2007, with the impending release of a revised version of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3), Linux kernel developers discussed the possibility of changing the license of the Linux kernel from being strictly the GPLv2 to a dual-licensing arrangement of both GPLv2 and GPLv3. We studied a set of Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML) postings to better understand the relationship among the kernel developers and these licenses. Using Actor-Network Theory, we identify and describe a LKML debate about licensing. Our narrative highlights important actor-networks, their interrelationships, and a (failed) process of translation. The details suggest that the conceptualization of a copyright license as a monolithic social force maintaining the Linux community should be tempered with an appreciation of authorship and its distributed nature within Linux development.
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The first sentence of Anna Karenina is one of the best-known openings of any novel: “All happy families are alike: each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” We studied the electronic mailing list discussions of the Linux kernel developers and found many posts that expressed the developers’ dislike for revised version of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3) — all for different reasons. On the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML) the posters explored the possibility of a dual-licensing arrangement under which the Linux Kernel would be licensed by both the GPLv2, the current license, and the GPLv3, the revision version of the license. We analyzed these opinions about the GPLv2 and GPLv3 to better understand the relationships between the Linux kernel developers and copyright licenses. Using the analysis perspective of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), these opinions provide details of differences between “open sources” software and “free software.” While the consensus of arguments on the LKML favored the GPLv2 over the GPLv3, the arguments were numerous and varied. The support for the GPLv2 was comprised of many individual arguments. Linux kernel developers have an author-centric view of licensing (i.e., that benefits the contributors of code), and reject a commanding, user-centric view (i.e., that emphasizes the free use of the software) they attributed to free software advocates.

The communities surrounding open source software and free software have a fuzzy and overlapping boundary. It is easiest to consider them as one, with the term Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) referring to an overall category of software that is contrasted with proprietary software. FOSS allows others to inspect the source code, provided they follow the terms of the code’s license. FOSS can be contrasted with proprietary software which releases programs only in machine-readable form so as to guard the secrecy of the program’s executed instructions. The term FOSS, even while referencing the overall category that is different from proprietary software, still maintains the distinction between free software and open source software, a distinction that began in the late 90s (Dempsey, Weiss, Jones, & Greenberg, 2002; Weiss, 2001), and still exist as is evident in the posts of the Linux kernel developers that we studied. The revision of the GPL has widened the gap between the two communities.

The difference between free software and open source software has been described in terms of the goals and the organizations founded to achieve these goals. Free software is championed by the Free Software Foundation whose mission is to achieve freedoms for users of software (Free Software Foundation, 2008). The definition of open source is stewarded by the Open Source Initiative, an organization which has its roots in the same programmer community as the free software advocates but which devotes attention to the areas of business and government (Open Source Initiative, 2005). The term “open source” (Open Source Development Network, 2006) was strategically adopted into use to help create a more business-friendly approach and to overcome the perceived poor reputation that “free software” had as connoting a “moralizing” attitude; programmers wanted to better market the burgeoning open development environment to business contexts (Fitzgerald, 2006; Tiemann, 2008). The difference between free software and open source software has also been described in terms of values, with open source advocates assuming that technical values are the basis of quality software and free software advocates assuming that freedom is the basis of cooperation (AlMarzouq, Zheng, Rong, & Grover, 2005). Ideology has consequences for FOSS communities. Stewart and Gosain (2006) find freedom beliefs negatively impact effectiveness, explaining that people with strong freedom beliefs distribute their efforts across many projects throughout the greater FOSS community as they strive to accomplish their social goals. Also, the reduced attention to individual projects hinders trust and communication.

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