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.comment: On Writing About Linux - page 3

The Paradox of News

  • June 20, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The story I covered yesterday was not "dirty laundry," a tale of pissing matches in development groups. We could fill page after page with those, every day. No, what made these issues news is what they suggest, what they might mean.

In the case of the GNOME problem, it tells of tension between the remaining GNOME-based company and other elements in the GNOME community. Whether these get resolved or not will have lasting effect on the course of that fine desktop. Miguel de Icaza, who is both the father of GNOME and the most conspicuous figure in Ximian, the remaining GNOME company, has written a Don Corleone-like letter to developers saying that he is "full of love." (I received an email from a GNOME developer last night that agreed with him only to the extent that the sender believed Miguel to be full of something, though the substance would be affectionately embraced only by a tomato plant, and then only after composting; still, I think it would be good to take Miguel at his word.)

No one, from what I can tell, thinks that it's anything but cruicial for these tensions to be resolved.

The KDE situation portends things that are in some ways more serious, not so much to KDE but to Linux development in general. Here we have someone who is (or was) a major contributor who wished to withdraw his code and who was prevented from it by its open-source license (I believe, but have not confirmed, that Mosfet used a BSD or BSD-like license, though the effect would be the same had he used the GPL and even more profound had he followed the Free Software Foundation's advice and assigned his copyrights to that organization). The fact is that once one has committed to something essential to a project, the law does not allow one at the last moment to withdraw it except in the most egregious of conditions, which probably weren't present in this case. But that doesn't really matter. A situation has presented itself in a way that may well cause future developers to take a closer look at the potential effects of open-source licenses. How this will play out cannot be known or (at least by me) even imagined. The possibilities are vast: remember, the GPL, until it is tested in court, is just a bunch of words cranked out by an angry guy in Boston and vetted by a sack of Jello topped by a pencil moustache in New York who has by getting involved relieved the monotony of teaching first-year law classes. We still don't know whether the thing holds water. Mosfet has increased the body of material developers will consider in licensing their work.

As a Linux user and advocate, I hope that the community aspects of licensing will prevail; as a writer who firmly believes that copyright ought to be ironclad, I hope the author's rights over his work, when it is not work for hire, wins out. This is a tough one for everybody, and I only wish the advocates on both sides were more reasonable.

These things are important and have the potential to become very important, even determinative as to the future of Linux. The idea that they should not be covered -- wait a minute, I've misused the word "ides," because it implies thought, and those who think this story shouldn't have been covered are mere mouthers of words -- the claim that these things should have not been covered is simply laughable.

There is something more.

A friend once wrote a good, solid piece about a ragingly corrupt local official, who responded by holding a news conference during which he had a heart attack and dropped dead. In the 1980s, there was a local official in Pennsylvania, who, identified as corrupt in an investigation, held a news conference in which he drew from a brown manila envelope a Smith & Wesson .357 and there, cameras rolling, rearranged his scalp, approaching it through the roof of his mouth.

It is the goal of reporters, always, to push aside the effects of their reporting, yet those effects lurk, always. When one writes about Linux, one can reasonably assume that nothing very dramatic will result. It's to be noted, too, that causality is a problematic thing -- would the local official have had his heart attack anyway? Would the Pennsylvania crook have been indicted anyway? -- but sometimes when causation is unclear, proximity makes its suggestion.

Among the talkbacks in yesterday's LinuxToday story was one from Mosfet himself. It talked about his having been flamed; it was not clear whether he thought this took place in the story (I don't think it did; I tried like hell to avoid taking sides) or in the talkbacks themselves, which were, as talkbacks are, posted in large measure by people who want free stuff.

Within an hour or two came word, also in the talkbacks, that Mosfet's site had gone largely blank, replaced by a sentence or two saying that he was leaving Linux entirely.

As with my friend and his dead local official, I'm troubled by the thought that my reporting might have contributed to Mosfet's decision (which it surely did in that some of the talkbacks were so intemperate in their venom toward him that I'd like to alter their noses, in which endeavor I think I'd have to rush to get in line ahead of lots of KDE developers), while at the same time I would, were it mine to do over, still do the story.

But I personally and professionally hope that Mosfet reconsiders. A very small part of that hope is simpatico, though a lot of it selfish, too. I like his work, and I want to have it running on my computers. I've already written that I think that themes ought to be optional; I've settled on his when I've chosen one, anyway. I don't know what will replace Pixie, but there will be a hiccup in KDE in that regard. There's lots of room for a reconciliation that would divorce his work from the CVS tree but still keep it part of "official" KDE.

It was widely noted yesterday, and it is true, that KDE and Linux will survive without Daniel M. Duley. But they will be better with him.

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