My email to Torvalds, RMS

This is the email I sent this morning to Linus, RMS and their legal dpts:

Dear Mr Torvalds,
Novell today announced that they removed from its distro all non-free kernel modules (they are now available only through a manual download process). As a plain user of GNU/Linux, I take an issue with this because it has an impact in the usability and “out of the box” experience that I expect from any desktop operating system in year 2006.

The reason I email yourself about this and not Novell, is because the problem lies with your personal stance on the issue. In the kernel mailing list you have mentioned many times in the past that you would prefer modules to be GPL and that the kernel’s license does not allow the creation of closed source drivers that link back to it. However, you always left the
issue lingering, kinda like saying “oh, whatever, the legality of the GPL reality might not allow proprietary drivers, but I won’t do anything against it either…”.

And this, is a terrible non-position to take. Because it creates problems with everyone involved: the companies continue writing non-GPL modules because they know that they won’t be sued, the distros are adding them or removing them without being able to make up their minds, and the users are getting pissed off for not having out of the box usability.

This is a mess.

Either OSDL and FSF must legally chase these companies from publishing their binary modules (or force them to open up their drivers), or you have to come out clean and say “screw it, the copyright of the kernel is mine and its core will be dual-licensed between the GPL and the LGPL and everyone can create whatever modules they damned want”.

But leaving the situation lingering without a clear cut solution, is a strategic mistake. Please come out with a YES or NO regarding binary modules, I don’t care which one it is, it’s just that I — the consumer– need a solution, because I need to know what to expect from the software I am about to use. And if it’s a NO, I also expect OSDL and FSF to take the
appropriate action immediately, with first “victims” the ATI and nVidia nonetheless.


Note: This email will be published on my blog. Your replies will be kept private, except if otherwise specified.

*Update:* Many people replied, Linus did too, the consesus is that they won’t do anything about it (obviously because they don’t want to piss off both the companies involved and the kernel contributors of many years). Linus refuses to clarify the product and so no potential law firm can build a case against current violators of the GPL. The result: nothing will ever change for the end user and the distros.

Post a comment »

Rob wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 1:54 AM PST:

Eugenia, Ricardo,

if you haven’t done so, read Greg KH’s recent keynote:

The “Freeness” issue of binary drivers is only a minor one, what’s most important is that a stable driver interface would slow down linux development.
You cannot just say Microsoft does it and its good, Linux needs it too. Look how many things were broken by the SP2 release and how people freaked out. That’s the downside of binary drivers and stable interfaces.

KCorax wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 5:13 AM PST:

> 4) Local Chrysler dealer
> Go figure. (blah)
> In my case I only need to contact the copyright holder.

Not really. You get support from the vendor you bought it from (Xandros for me) or the forums of the distro ( for the rest of my machines.

In part of SUSE it’s a smart move. I remind you this:
> With LSB 3.0, the Free Standards Group, a non-profit
> (blah) application binary interface (ABI) for C++,
> which is supported by all Linux suppliers.

They are effectively coercing the developers to rewrite kernel modules over the ABI if they want them to work. I’m really excited about this, maybe some day I’ll be able to install my nvidia drivers without cosnole->telinit 2 etc.

> interface would slow down linux development.

It would absolutely not do that. With some carefull design and a standardized public interface, only some intermediate hooks will have to change with each release.

Ludovic Hirlimann wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 7:10 AM PST:

There is a solution to that mess. (And Yes I know this could start a flame war , and it’s not my intention). Switch to some other free os distribution that has a clear licence : switch to the BSD familly.

This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 7:12 AM PST:

He can’t do that. Others own code in the kernel that they would not want that. He would lose half the kernel and he would end up with an unworkable product if he does that.

Rob wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 8:31 AM PST:


imagine you’d own a Chrysler car with an engine from Mercedes. Who would you contact if you were unhappy with the engine?
1) Mercedes lead engine engineer
2) Mercedes headquater
3) Chrysler headquater
4) Local Chrysler dealer
Go figure.

This is the admin speaking...
Eugenia wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 9:10 AM PST:

In my case I only need to contact the copyright holder. My problem is with ALL distros (I don’t even use SuSE), so I gotta go to the source. And that’s what I did.

Joseph wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 9:16 AM PST:

Just assume it’s illegal :)

Always the safe bet.

Ricardo Ramalho wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 9:23 AM PST:

I would go even deeper into this question: the driver API. Whatever Linus thinks, I personally think that a stable API should exist and that installable binary drivers should also exist, in a “Win32 fashion”; whatever the kernel version is, the thing works. It should be that way! No, but Linux had to have these quirks, and people just stop using it. ATI/nVidia/Wireless drivers ring a bell?

Is there a logical answer to this? Maybe a technical answer yes, but not a logical one for sure! In a user’s perspective, of course!

In a perfect world everyone would write drivers for Linux and open them without a problem whatsoever, but this ain’t a perfect world.

Eugenia, this was a really good argumentation from your part! ;)

Rick wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 10:29 AM PST:

Forget about Linux ever being any kind of mainstream operating system. No stable API and the GPL has ensured that. If you really care about a free operating system that can cater to the consumer you might want to start looking at Solaris or a BSD.

KCorax wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 10:51 AM PST:

You’re not listening: Xandros, Linspire, Mandriva pro, Suse pro. Paid-for distros *work* , they also tend to come with java/flash/drivers out of the box.

When I buy a distro, I buy it as a product. If it’s supposed to sync evolution with my smartphone, or plug-and-play a graphics card, getting it to work is their problem not mine.

Rick wrote on August 2nd, 2006 at 11:49 AM PST:

It’s amazing that people that actually cared about a free Unix desktop having consumer appeal could have overlooked the fact that the GPL and no stable ABI would doom Linux.

RedHat stopped caring about desktop Linux years ago. Novell should probably start worrying about where Linux matters and that’s the server.

Or if they really want to make a go at it, put up a Solaris or FreeBSD distro.

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