The Problem with Pragmatism

by chromatic

Related link:

My biggest gripe with proprietary software is that it inhibits my rights. The most important of these rights is Freedom Zero: the right to use the software as you see fit.

While there are some proprietary software companies that have acted in good faith, I'm still concerned about this tension where freedom is involved. Do I have the right to use the software if the copyright holders somehow find me objectionable? Do I still control my data? Do I have the right to switch to a competing product, or to cease using the product at my convenience?

That's why I'm saddened by the actions of BitMover, the company behind BitKeeper. That's why I'm saddened by the "false pragmatism" that's led open source developers to use this tool.

BitMover exists to make money. That's fine. It offers a useful product and service to the Linux kernel developers in exchange for visibility, status, and a steady stream of bug reports and feature requests. That's also fine.

BitMover makes free (as in price, not freedom) BitKeeper binaries available to developers under the BKL (BitKeeper License). The problem is, in my mind, threefold. First, the licence may be amended at any time. So it has. Second, using the product requires you to submit your project history ("Metadata" in BK terms) to a BitMover-approved server. Third, reportedly, the "free" binaries are upgraded automatically when they contact the server -- effectively pushing down new license terms.

I don't intend to single out BitMover as the Bad Guy of the Day. Putting source control and change management in place for the Linux kernel was very important, and it's been positive overall. However, the friction between proprietary interests and freedom will never go away.

Linus and several other kernel developers chose to go with what they perceived to be "the best tool for the job". In doing so, they're taking several risks:

  • that the licence will not be amended to terms with which they disagree in the future

  • that they will have access to and control of their metadata in the future

  • that they will not be forced to accept amended licences by being forced into upgrades

  • that, even if the current copyright holders act in good faith, they will never be replaced by a somewhat harsher entity

Time will tell if the BitKeeper situation resolves this friction.

It's never worth giving up these freedoms, though. That's why I say it's a false pragmatism. Surely the "best tool for the job" is a tool that won't make your life harder in the future. Only truly free software can make that guarantee.


2002-10-07 11:41:48
On the issues of automatic updates
People who are interested in the issues surrounding the automatic updates of the software and its associated licence, may be interested in this article from InfoWorld:

Basically it argues that Windows Service Packs may be illegal for health care providers under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. In a bizarre twist, the article argues that both installing and NOT installing them may be illegal.

Setting aside the finer points of law, the article does show some of the issues and risks associated with automatic updates.

(O'Reilly seems to have lost my account; try to contact.)

2002-10-07 13:46:14
Author of GPL'd software can change licenses too.
Authors of works that are under the GPL can change their licenses at will as well. Not just open source ones.

No license will ever protect against some doing something that is stupid.

There is no open vs free here. Move along people.

2002-10-07 14:32:06
Author of GPL'd software can change licenses too.
Your subject is indeed true.

However, I cannot retroactively change a license. I also cannot force users to host their metadata at a central server under my control, as the GPL allows them to change that portion of the code.

If I release a piece of software under the GPL, I'm effectively saying "This version of this code will forever be Free under these terms."

You don't have that sort of guarantee with a proprietary license.

2002-10-07 16:39:33
Author of GPL'd software can change licenses too.
We're on the same page. I must have been in a hurry when I wrote that first reply regardless of the subject being true.
2002-11-09 23:58:14
The word is "led"
Your point is well-taken, but you reduce your
credibility when you cannot spell a three-letter
2004-06-04 19:20:07
The word is "led"

Stupid homophones. I've fixed it now, thanks!