GNOME, GNU, and a long memory

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Dec 16, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Reading the recent discussions about GNOME's position in the GNU Project, I'm reminded of Utah Phillip's comment that "a long memory is the most radical notion in history." The way that the discussion has been reported in the media, you would hardly guess that the discussion is the latest round in an ongoing and disquieting dispute -- largely because the origins of the dispute were never widely reported.

The current discussion began on the GNOME Foundation mailing list, when Richard Stallman, president and founder of the Free Software Foundation, suggested that Planet GNOME, ( the conglomeration of GNOME developers' blogs, should exclude all references to proprietary software.

"The most minimal support for the free software movement is to refrain from going directly against it; that is, to avoid presenting proprietary software as legitimate," Stallman wrote.

As the discussion rapidly developed, Philip Van Hoof replied that, in contrast to Stallman, "most members want GNOME to stay out of that philosophic discussion" and suggested that GNOME hold a referendum about continuing to belong to the GNOME Project, the software development community associated with the Free Software Foundation. Discussion followed about what percentage of GNOME members would have to agree before the project left the foundation, as well as about the original issue and how -- or whether -- it should be enforced.

One of several active participants in the discussion was David "Lefty" Schlesinger, a member of the GNOME advisory board. Schlesinger also posted a reasonably accurate summary of the discussion, as well as a more heavily biased poll on the subject.

As I write, much of the discussion has died. However, the fact that Schlesinger followed up these posts with a new one accusing the Free Software Foundation of hypocrisy because it accepts donations from companies that sell proprietary software, the issue seems unlikely to disappear.

Exercising the long memory

If you follow the current discussion or its media coverage, you might be surprised at the urgency. After all, in theory, the question of whether GNOME stays within the GNU Project seems of little consequence. Unlike smaller projects that are dependent on the GNU Project for web hosting and other resources, GNOME is a large and influential project that runs its own affairs. Many people, even within GNOME, were probably surprised to be reminded that it was still officially part of the GNU Project. A formal split would only confirm what has already existed for years.

However, if you remember the antecedents of the present discussion, the reason for the energetic discussion becomes clearer. What nobody is emphasizing -- in the case of some participants, no doubt, because the facts are too well-known -- is that the issue is in some senses a continuation of disagreements that began some months ago.

The disagreement dates back to the Gran Canaria Desktop Summit last July, where Richard Stallman used his keynote to condemn GNOME's use of Mono-dependent applications like Tomboy and F-Spot, and was accused of sexism because of a joking reference to deflowering Emacs virgins.

Many GNOME developers were reportedly offended by Stallman's remarks on Mono. For several weeks, some sported buttons on their blogs that defended their right to code in the language of their choice. Still others, including feminists outside of GNOME (and me), commented on the issue of sexism.

The sexism issue was further inflamed when Schlesinger, wrote to Stallman asking that he apologize. Officially, this disagreement petered out, and was papered over with a summit on women in free software sponsored by GNOME and the Free Software Foundation. Unofficially, however, it has continued to simmer.

Having proved his innocence to his own satisfaction, Stallman continues to demand apologies from those who describe his remark as sexist. On Software Freedom Day, he is also supposed to have indirectly refered to Schlesinger as "a troll-like enemy of the free software movement."

For his part, Schlesinger started a site called Boycott Boycott Novell, which lumps Stallman with Roy Schestowitz of Boycott Novell as a free software zealot, and published a caricature of Stallman, as well as frequent anti-Stallman polls and articles. The site enjoys modest traffic, with 6-50 guests visiting at any one time, which suggests that Schlesinger represents a widely held point of view. In fact, the exchange between Stallman and Schlesinger should not be seen as merely persona, but rather as an exchange between representatives of two widely differing viewponts.

Repeating the past

These circumstances have hardly been mentioned anywhere in the discussion about GNOME and its position with the GNU Project. Yet, considering the attacks on both sides, I can't help wondering how much past history is affecting the current discussion -- or if the current discussion is just a continuation of the dispute by other means.

Perhaps Stallman simply saw a wrong that he thought needed righting. But, in light of recent history, could his comment about mentioning proprietary software on Planet GNOME be an effort on some level to reassert his control over GNOME? After all, the mention of proprietary software is rare on Planet GNOME, although it does occasionally occur.

Similarly, I wonder to what degree Schlesinger's involvement in the current discussion originates in his obvious dislike of Stallman, the Free Software Foundation, and its supporters. While you might argue that he is only doing his job, his inability to put aside his animosity suggests that he would do better not to be involved.

Nobody is likely to ever know how much these motivations influence what is happening, any more than they know how many people support each position. However, I do know that the issue concerns those in the free and open source software community; a single link about a peripheral issue has brought several hundred additional people to my personal blog in the last few weeks.

Under these circumstances (at the risk of offending with the unsolicited advice of an outsider0, I can only urge GNOME members to ask themselves whether they want to act on an issue where there appears to be more spite than reason on both sides. For all I know, GNOME might be better off outside of the GNU Project, but, if it is, should GNOME withdraw just now, when the action is likely to increase ill feelings on either side? The greater community already has too many divisions. Does it really need another?

Staying within the GNU Project may have very little practical effect on GNOME. However, making any formal decision under these circumstances might. At the very least, any vote might be delayed six months so that people have a chance to consider the idea on its merits and not on the emotions stored up over the last six months.


  • reply from David Schlesinger

    I received the following email from David "Lefty" Schlesinger. I'm reprinting it with his permission:


    Rather than ³wondering² about my motivations, perhaps next time, you might
    consider simply asking me.

    While I certainly find myself consistently unhappy with Mr. Stallman¹s
    positions and pronouncements, my involvement in that particular
    discussion‹as someone whose blog is syndicated to Planet GNOME, and whose
    company makes "illegitimate", "immoral" and "unethical" proprietary
    software, I clearly have an immediate personal interest‹has a lot more to do
    with my valuing free expression on Planet GNOME, as do the overwhelming
    majority of the other Planet contributors according to my poll, than my
    dislike for Stallman personally.

    I have an extreme distaste for the idea of censorship in the name of
    ³freedom² and imposed groupthink, and to the extent that Mr. Stallman
    advocates positions like that where they directly affect me, then yes, we¹re
    likely to butt heads.

    As far as my follow-up article goes, I think the hypocrisy is obvious: Mr.
    Stallman says on the foundation-list that he "wouldn't encourage anyone to
    use non-free software, even to get money to give to a worthy cause".
    Apparently this doesn't apply if the non-free software is being used as a
    product or sales tool by Nokia, Cisco, IBM, Intel, Barracuda, etc., etc.,
    and the "worthy cause" is the FSF.

    Several of us, including Dave Neary, have expressed an interest on the
    foundation-list in Richard's view as to whether the GNOME Foundation should,
    according to his espoused views, dissolve the Advisory Board and refuse
    future funding from companies that make any money from proprietary software.
  • some things never change...

    Upton Sinclair. He said ‘Its hard get a man to understand something, when he’s being paid not to understand it’.

    There, in a single quote, is the gist of why the Gnu-Linux community made a terrible mistake ever getting corporations involved in development on any level. "It takes a long spoon to sup with the Devil..."
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