The licensing discourse in the last few weeks has highlighted a difference between what “open source” means and what we’re talking about when we use the term. Strictly speaking, open source software is software released under a license approved by the Open Source Initiative. In most practical usage, we’re talking about software developed in a particular way. When we talk about open source, we talk about the communities of users and developers, (generally) not the license. “Open source” has come to define an ethos that was all have our own definition of.Continue reading
If you thought 2021 was going to be the year without big drama in the world of open source licensing, you didn’t have to wait long to be disappointed. Two stories have already sprung up in the first few weeks of the year. They’re independent, but related. Both of them remind us that open source is a development model, not a business model.
Elasticsearch and Kibana
A few years ago, it seemed like I couldn’t go to any sysadmin/DevOps conference or meetup without hearing about the “ELK stack“. ELK stands for the three pieces of software involved: Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana. Because it provided powerful aggregation, search, and visualization of arbitrary log files, it became very popular. This also meant that Amazon Web Services (AWS) saw value in providing an Elasticsearch service.
As companies moved more workloads to AWS it made sense to pay AWS for Amazon Elasticsearch Service instead of paying Elastic. This represented what you might call a revenue problem for Elastic. So they decided to follow MongoDB’s lead and change their license to the Server Side Public License (SSPL).
The SSPL is essentially a “you can’t use it, AWS” license. This makes it decidedly not open source. Insultingly, Elastic’s announcement and follow-up messaging include phrases like “doubling down on open”, implying that the SSPL is an open source license. It is not. It a source-available license. And, as open source business expert VM Brasseur writes, it creates business risk for companies that use Elasticsearch and Kibana.
Elastic is, of course, free to use whatever license it wants for the software it develops. And it’s free to want to make money. But it’s not reasonable to get mad at companies using the software under the license you chose to use for it. Picking a license is a business decision.
Shortly before I sat down to write this post, I saw that Amazon has forked Elasticsearch and Kibana. They will take the last-released versions and continue to develop them as open source projects under the Apache License v2. This is entirely permissible and to be expected when a project makes a significant licensing change. So now Elastic is in danger of a sizable portion of the community moving to the fork and away from their projects. If that pans out, it may end up being more harmful than Amazon Elasticsearch Service ever was.
Nmap Public Source License
The second story actually started in the fall of 2020, but didn’t seem to get much notice until after the new year. The developers of nmap, the widely-used security scanner, began using a new license. Prior to the release of version 7.90, nmap was under a modified version of the GNU General Public License version 2 (GPLv2). This license had some additional “gloss”, but was generally accepted by Linux distributions to be a valid free/open source software license.
With version 7.90, nmap is now under the Nmap Public Source License (NPSL). Version 0.92 of this license contained some phrasing that seemed objectionable. The Gentoo licenses team brought their concerns to the developers in a GitHub issue. Some of their concerns seemed like non-issues to me (and to the lawyers at work I consulted with on this), but one part in particular stood out.
Proprietary software companies wishing to use or incorporate Covered Software within their programs must contact Licensor to purchase a separate license
It seemed clear that the intent was to restrict proprietary software, not otherwise-compliant projects from companies that produce proprietary software. Nonetheless, as it was written, it constituted a violation of the Open Source Definition, and we rejected it for use in Fedora.
To their credit, the developers took the feedback well and quickly released an updated version of the license. They even retroactively licensed affected releases under the updated license. Unfortunately, version 0.93 still contains some problems. In particular, the annotations still express field of endeavor restrictions.
While the license text is the most important part, the annotations still matter. They indicate the intent of the license and guide the interpretation by lawyers and judges. So newer versions of nmap remain unsuitable for some distributions.
Licenses are not for you to be clever
Like with Elastic, I’m sympathetic to the nmap developers’ position. If someone is going to use their project to make money, they’d like to get paid, too. That’s an entirely reasonable position to take. But the way they went about it isn’t right. As noted in the GitHub issue, they’re not copyright attorneys. If they were, the license would be much better.
It seems like the developers are fine with people free-riding profit off of nmap so long as the software used to generate the profit is also open source. In that case, why not just use a professionally-drafted and vetted license like the AGPL? The NPSL is already using the GPLv2 and adding more stuff on top of it, and it’s the more stuff on top of it that’s causing problems.
Trying to write your business model into a software license that purports to be open source is a losing proposition.
Earlier this week, GitHub took down the repository for the youtube-dl project. This came in response to a request from the RIAA—the recording industry’s lobbying and harassment body. youtube-dl is a tool for downloading videos. The RIAA argued that this violates the anticircumvention protections of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). While GitHub taking down the repository and its forks is true to the principle of minimizing corporate risk, it’s the wrong choice.
Microsoft—currently the world’s second-most valuable company with a market capitalization of $1.64 trillion—owns GitHub. If anyone is in a position to fight back on this, it’s Microsoft. Microsoft’s lawyers should have a one word answer to the RIAA’s request: “no”. (full disclosure: I own a small number of shares of Microsoft)
The procedural argument
The first reason to tell the RIAA where to stick it is procedural. The RIAA isn’t arguing that youtube-dl is infringing its copyrights or circumventing its protections. It is arguing that youtube-dl infringes YouTube’s protections. So even if it is, that’s YouTube’s problem, not the RIAA’s.
The factual argument
I have some sympathy for the anticircumvention argument. I’m not familiar with the specifics of how youtube-dl works, but it’s at least possible that youtube-dl circumvents YouTube’s copy protection. This would be a reasonable basis for YouTube to take action. Again, YouTube, not the RIAA.
I have less sympathy for the infringement argument. youtube-dl doesn’t induce infringement more than a web browser or screen recorder does. There are a variety of uses for youtube-dl that are not infringing. Foremost is the fact that some YouTube videos are under a license that explicitly allows sharing and remixing. Archivers use it to archive content. Some people who have time-variable Internet billing use it to download videos overnight.
So, yes, youtube-dl can be used to infringe the RIAA’s copyrights. It can also be used for non-infringing purposes. The code itself does not infringe. There’s nothing about it that gives the RIAA a justification to take it down.
youtube-dl isn’t the whole story
youtube-dl provides a focal point, but there’s more to it. Copyright law is now used to suppress instead of promote creative works. The DMCA, in particular, favors the large rightsholders over smaller developers and creators. It essentially forces sites to act on a “guilty until proven innocent” model. Companies in a position to push back have an obligation to do so. Microsoft has become a supporter of open source, now it’s time to show they mean it.
We should also consider the risks of consolidation. git is a decentralized system. GitHub has essentially centralized it. Sure, many competitors exist, but GitHub has become the default place to host open source code projects. The fact that GitHub’s code is proprietary is immaterial to this point. A FOSS service would pose the same risk if it became the centralized service.
I saw a quote on this discussion (which I can’t find now) that said “code is free, infrastructure is not.” And while projects self-hosting their code repository, issue tracker, etc may be philosophically appealing, that’s not realistic. Software-as-a-Service has lowered the barrier for starting projects, which is a good thing. But it doesn’t come without risk, which we are now seeing.
I don’t know what the right answer is for this. I know the answer won’t be easy. But both this specific case and the general issues they highlight are important for us to think about.
Earlier this week, Miroslav Suchý proposed removing removing retired packages as part of Fedora upgrade (editor’s note: the proposal was withdrawn after community feedback). As it stands right now, if a package is removed in a subsequent release, it will stick around. For example, I have 34 packages on my work laptop from Fedora 28 (the version I first installed on it) through Fedora 31. The community has been discussing this, with no clear consensus.
I’m writing this post to explore my own thoughts. It represents my opinions as Ben Cotton: Fedora user and contributor, not as Ben Cotton: Fedora Program Manager.
What does it mean for a package to be “maintained”?
This question is the heart of the discussion. In theory, a maintained package means that there’s someone who can apply security and other bug fixes, update to new releases, etc. In practice, that’s not always the case. Anyone who has had a bug closed due to the end-of-life policy will attest to that.
The practical result is that as long as the package continues to compile, it may live on for a long time after the maintainer has given up on it. This doesn’t mean that it will get updates, it just means that no one has had a reason to remove it from the distribution.
On the other hand, the mere fact that a package has been dropped from the distribution doesn’t mean that something is wrong with it. If upstream hasn’t made any changes, the “unmaintained” version is just as functional as a maintained version would be.
What is the role of a Linux distribution?
Why do Linux distributions exist? After all, people could just download the software and build it themselves. That’s asking a lot of most people. Even those who have sufficient technical knowledge to compile all of the different packages in different languages with different quirks, few have the time or desire to do so.
So a distribution is, in part, a sharing of labor. By dividing the work, we reduce our own burden and democratize access.
A distribution is also a curated collection. It’s the set of software that the contributors say is worth using, configured in the “right way”. Sure there are a dozen or so web browsers in the Fedora repos, but that’s not the entirety of web browsers that exist. Just as an art museum may have several similar paintings, a distribution might have several similar packages. But they’re all there for a reason.
To remove or not to remove?
The question of whether to remove unmaintained packages then becomes a balance between the shared labor and the curation aspects of a distribution.
The shared labor perspective supports not removing packages. If the package is uninstalled at update, then someone who relies on that package now has to download and build it themselves. It may also cause user confusion if something that previously worked suddenly stops, or if a package that exists on an upgraded system can’t be installed on a new one.
On the other hand, the curation perspective supports removing the package. Although there’s no guarantee that a maintained package will get updates, there is a guarantee that an unmaintained package won’t. Removing obsolete packages at upgrade also means that the upgraded system more closely resembles a freshly-installed system.
There’s no right answer. Both options are reasonable extensions of fundamental purposes of a distribution. Both have obvious benefits and drawbacks.
Pick a side, Benjamin
If I have to pick a side, I’m inclined to side with the “remove the packages” argument. But we have to make sure we’re clearly communicating what is happening to the user. We should also offer an easy opt-out for users who want to say “I know what you’re trying to do here, but keep these packages anyway.”
Earlier today, I ran
dnf update on my laptop, as I do regularly. After rebooting, I couldn’t log in. When I typed in my user name and password, it almost immediately returned to the login screen. Running
startx from the command line failed, too. I spent an hour or two trying to diagnose the problem. There were a lot of distracting messages in the xorg log.
The problem turned out to be that the
startkde command was no longer on my machine. It seems upgrading from version 5.16 to 5.17 of the plasma-workspace package removes
startkde in favor of
startplasma-x11. Creating a symlink fixed it as a workaround.
This is reported as bug #1785826, and I’m sure Rex and the rest of the Fedora KDE team will have a suitable fix out soon. In the meantime, creating a symlink appears to be the best way to fix it.
Why the symlink works
When an X session starts, it looks in a few different places to see what should be run. One of those places is
/etc/X11/xinit/Xclients. This file checks for a preferred desktop environment. If one isn’t specified, it works through a list trying to find one that works. It does this by looking for the specific desktop environment’s executable.
startkde no longer exists, it had no way of checking for KDE Plasma. I don’t have any other desktop environments installed on this machine, so there was no other desktop environment to fallback to. I suspect if GNOME were installed, it would have logged me into GNOME instead, at least when running
So another fix would be to replace instances of
startplasma-x11 in the
Xclients file (similarly if you have that file in your home directory). However, this leaves anything else that might check for the existence of
startkde in the lurch. (I don’t know if anything does).
There’s probably more options for fixing it out there; this is very much not my area of expertise. I’d have to say that this was the most frustrating issue I’ve had to debug in a long time, in part because it took me a while to even know where the problem was. The fact that moving my
~/.kde directory didn’t result in a new one being created told me that it was pretty early in the process.
What distractions did I see?
In trying to diagnose the issue, I got distracted by a variety of error messages:
xf86EnableIOPorts: failed to set IOPL for I/O (Operation not permitted)
/dev/fb0: permission denied
gkr-pam: unable to locate daemon control file
pam_kwallet5: couldn't open file
A lot of people who work on open source software get paid to do so. Many others do not. And as we learned during the Heartbleed aftermath, sometimes the unpaid (or under-paid) projects are very important. Projects have changed their licenses (e.g. MongoDB, which is now not an open source project by the Open Source Initiative’s definition) in order to cut off large corporations that don’t pay for the free software.
There’s clearly a broad recognition that maintainers need to be paid in order to sustain the software ecosystem. So if you expect that people are happy with GitHub’s recent announcement of a GitHub Sponsors, you have clearly spent no time in open source software communities. The reaction has had a lot of “pay the maintainers! No, not like that!” which strikes me as being obnoxious and unhelpful.
GitHub Sponsors is not a perfect model. Bradley Kuhn and Karen Sandler of the Software Freedom Conservancy called it a “quick fix to sustainability“. That’s the most valid criticism. It turns out that money doesn’t solve everything. Throwing money at a project can sometimes add to the burden, not lessen it. Money adds a lot of messiness and overhead to manage it, especially if there’s not a legal entity behind the project. That’s where the services provided by fiscal sponsor organizations like Conservancy come in.
But throwing money at a problem can sometimes help it. Projects can opt in to accepting money, which means they can avoid the problems if they want. On the other hand, if they want to take in money, GitHub just made it pretty easy. The patronage model has worked well for artists, it could also work for coders.
The other big criticism that I’ll accept is that it puts the onus on individual sponsorships (indeed, that’s the only kind available at the moment), not on corporate:
Like with climate change or reducing plastic waste, the individual’s actions are insignificant compared to the effects of corporate action. But that doesn’t mean individual action is bad. If iterative development is good for software, then why not iterate on how we support the software? GitHub just reduced the friction of supporting open source developers significantly. Let’s start there and fix the system as we go.
Writing for ZDNet earlier this month, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols declared trouble for the Linux desktop. He’s wrong.
Or maybe not. Maybe we’re just looking at different parts of the elephant. sjvn’s core argument, if I may sum it up, is that fragmentation is holding back the Linux desktop. Linux can’t gain significant traction in the desktop market because there are just so many options. This appeals to computer nerds, but leads to confusion for general users who don’t want to care about whether they’re running GNOME or KDE Plasma or whatever.
I’m sympathetic to that argument. When I was writing documentation for Fedora, we generally wrote instructions for GNOME, since that was the default desktop. Fedora users can also choose from spins of KDE Plasma, LXQt, Xfce, plus can install other desktop environments. If someone installs KDE Plasma because that’s what their friend gave them, will they be able to follow the documentation? If not, will they get frustrated and move back to Windows or MacOS?
Even if they stick it out, there are two large players in the GUI toolkit world: GTK and Qt. You can use an app written in one in a desktop environment written in the other, but it doesn’t always look very good. And the configuration settings may not be consistent between apps, which is also frustrating.
Apart from that, sjvn also laments the lack of desktop effort from major Linux vendors:
True, the broad strokes of the Linux desktop are painted primarily by Canonical and Red Hat, but the desktop is far from their top priority. Instead, much of the nuts and bolts of the current generation of the Linux desktop is set by vendor-related communities: Red Hat, Fedora, SUSE’s openSUSE, and Canonical’s Ubuntu.
I would argue that this is the way it should be. As he notes in the preceding paragraph, the focus of revenue generation is on enterprise servers and cloud. There are two reasons for that: that’s where the customer money is and enterprises don’t want to innovate on their desktops.
I’ll leave the first part to someone else, but I think the “enterprises don’t want to innovate on their desktops” part is important. I’ve worked at and in support of some large organizations and in all cases, they didn’t want anything more from their desktops than “it allows our users to run their business applications in a reliable manner”. Combine this with the tendency of the enterprise to keep their upgrade cycles long and it makes no sense to keep desktop innovation in the enterprise product.
Community distributions are generally more focused on individuals or small organizations who may be more willing to accept disruptive change as the paradigm is moved forward. This is true beyond the desktop, too. Consider changes like the adoption of systemd or replacing yum with dnf: these also appeared in the community distributions first, but I didn’t see that used as a case for “enterprise Linux distributions are in trouble.”
What’s the answer?
Looking ahead, I’d love to see a foundation bring together the Linux desktop community and have them hammer out out a common desktop for everyone. Yes, I know, I know. Many hardcore Linux users love have a variety of choices. The world is not made up of desktop Linux users. For the million or so of us, there are hundreds of millions who want an easy-to-use desktop that’s not Windows, doesn’t require buying a Mac, and comes with broad software and hardware support.
Setting aside the XKCD #927 argument, I don’t know that this is an answer. Even if the major distros agreed to standardize on the same desktop (and with Ubuntu returning to GNOME, that’s now the case), that won’t stop effort on other desktops. If the corporate sponsors don’t invest any effort, the communities still will. People will use whatever is provided to them in the workplace, so presenting a single standard desktop to consumers will rely on the folks who make the community distributions to agree to that. It won’t happen.
But here’s the crux of my disagreement with this article. The facts are all correct, even if I disagree with the interpretation of some of them. The issue is that we’re not looking at the success of the Linux desktop in the same way.
If you define “Linux desktop” as “a desktop environment that runs the Linux kernel”, then ChromeOS is doing quite well, and will probably continue to grow (unless Google gets bored with it). In that case, the Linux desktop is not in trouble, it’s enjoying unprecedented success.
But when most people say “Linux desktop”, they think of a traditional desktop model. In this case, the threat to Linux desktops is the same as the threat to Windows and MacOS: desktops matter less these days. So much computing, particularly for consumers, happens in the web browser when done on a PC at all.
Rethinking the goal
This brings me back to my regular refrain: using a computer is a means, not an end. People don’t run a desktop environment to run a desktop environment, they run a desktop environment because it enables them to do the things they want to do. As those things are increasingly done on mobile or in the web browser, achieving dominant market share for desktops is no longer a meaningful goal (if, indeed, it ever was).
Many current Linux desktop users are (I guess), motivated at least in part by free software ideals. This is not a mainstream position. Consumers will need more practical reasons to choose any Linux desktop over the proprietary OS that was shipped by the computer’s manufacturer.
With that in mind, the answer isn’t standardization, it’s making the experience better. Fedora Silverblue and OpenSUSE Kubic are efforts in that direction. Using those as a base, with Flatpaks to distribute applications, the need for standardization at the desktop environment level decreases because the users are mostly interacting with the application level, one step above.
The usual disclaimer applies: I am a Red Hat employee who works on Fedora. The views in this post are my own and not necessarily the views of Red Hat, the Fedora Council, or anyone else. They may not even be my views by the time you read this.
Two weeks ago, GitHub added a new feature for all users: the ability to set a status. I’m in favor of this. First, it appeals to my AOL Instant Messenger nostalgia. Second, I think it provides a valuable context for open source projects. It allows maintainers to say “hey, I’m not going to be very responsive for a bit”. In theory, this should let people filing issues and pull requests not get so angry if they don’t get a quick response.
Jessie Frazelle described it as the “cure for open source guilt”.
I was surprised at the amount of blowback this got. (See, for example the replies to Nat Friedman’s tweet.) Some of the responses are of the dumb “oh noes you’re turning GitHub into a social media platform. It should be about the code!” variety. To those people I say “fine, don’t use this feature.” Others raise a point about not advertising being on vacation.
I’m sympathetic to that. I’m generally pretty quiet about the house being empty on public or public-ish platforms. It’s a good way to advertise yourself to vandals and thieves. To be honest, I’m more worried about something like Nextdoor where the users are all local than GitHub where anyone who cares is probably a long way away. Nonetheless, it’s a valid concern, especially for people with a higher profile.
I agree with Peter that it’s not wise to set expectations for maintainers to share their private details. That said, I do think it’s helpful for maintainers to let their communities know what to expect from them. There are many reasons that someone might need to step away from their project for a week or several. A simple “I’m busy with other stuff and will check back in on February 30th” or something to that effect would accomplish the goal of setting community expectations without being too revelatory.
The success of this feature will rely on users making smart decisions about what they choose to reveal. That’s not always a great bet, but it does give people some control over the impact. The real question will be: how much do people respect it?
Too often I see comments like “some people would rather focus on inclusion than write good code.” Not only is that a false dichotomy, but it completely misrepresents the relationship between the two. Inclusion doesn’t come at the cost of good code, it’s a necessary part of good code.
We don’t write code for the sake of writing code. We write code for people to use it in some way. This means that the code needs to work for the people. In order to do that, the people designing and implementing the technology need to consider different experiences. The best way to do that is to have people with different experiences be on the team. As my 7th grade algebra teacher was fond of reminding us: garbage in, garbage out.
But it’s not like the tech industry has a history of bad decision making. Or soap dispensers not working with dark-skinned people. Or identifying black people as gorillas. Or voice recognition not responding to female voices. What could go wrong with automatically labeling “suspicious” people?
I’ll grant that not all of these issues are with the code itself. In fact a lot of it isn’t the code, it’s the inputs given to the code. So when I talk about “good coding” here, I’m being very loose with the wording as a shorthand for the technology we produce in general. The point holds because the code doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
It’s not just about the outputs and real world effect of what we make. There’s also the matter of wanting to build the best team. Inclusion opens you up to a broader base of talent that might self-select out.
Being inclusive takes effort. It sometimes requires self-examination and facing unpleasant truths. But it makes you a better person and if you don’t care about that, it makes your technology better, too.
It may be the biggest story in open source in 2018, a year that saw Microsoft purchase GitHub. Linus Torvalds replaced the Code of Conflict for the Linux kernel with a Code of Conduct. In a message on the Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML), Torvalds explained that he was taking time off to examine the way he led the kernel development community.
Torvalds has taken a lot of flak for his style over the years, including on this blog. While he has done an excellent job shepherding the technical development of the Linux kernel, his community management has often — to put it mildly — left something to be desired. Abusive and insulting behavior is corrosive to a community, and Torvalds has spent the better part of the last three decades enabling and partaking in it.
But he has seen the light, it would seem. To an outside observer, this change is rather abrupt, but it is welcome. Reaction to his message has been mixed. Some, like my friend Jono Bacon, have advocated supporting Linus in his awakening. Others take a more cynical approach:
I understand Kelly’s position. It’s frustrating to push for a more welcoming and inclusive community only to be met with insults and then when someone finally comes around to have everyone celebrate. Kelly and others who feel like her are absolutely justified in their position.
For myself, I like to think of it as a modern parable of the prodigal son. As tempting as it is to reject those who awaken late, it is better than them not waking at all. If Linus fails to follow through, it would be right to excoriate him. But if he does follow through, it can only improve the community around one of the most important open source projects. And it will set an example for other projects to follow.
I spend a lot of time thinking about community, particularly since I joined Red Hat as the Fedora Program Manager a few months ago. Community members — especially those in a highly-visible role — have an obligation to model the kind of behavior the community needs. This sometimes means a patient explanation when an angry rant would feel better. It can be demanding and time-consuming work. But an open source project is more than just the code; it’s also the community. We make technology to serve the people, so if our communities are not healthy, we’re not doing our jobs.