Pick a Free OS

Linux, GNU, and freedom


The use of Bitkeeper for the Linux sources has a grave effect on the free software community, because anyone who wants to closely track patches to Linux can only do it by installing that non-free program. There must be dozens or even hundreds of kernel hackers who have done this. Most of them are gradually convincing themselves that it is ok to use non-free software, in order to avoid a sense of cognitive dissonance about the presence of Bitkeeper on their machines. What can be done about this?

One solution is to set up another repository for the Linux sources, using CVS or another free version control system, and arranging to load new versions into it automatically. This could use Bitkeeper to access the latest revisions, then install the new revisions into CVS. That update process could run automatically and frequently.

The FSF cannot do this, because we cannot install Bitkeeper on our machines. We have no non-free systems or applications on them now, and our principles say we must keep it that way. Operating this repository would have to be done by someone else who is willing to have Bitkeeper on his machine, unless someone can find or make a way to do it using free software.

The Linux sources themselves have an even more serious problem with non-free software: they actually contain some. Quite a few device drivers contain series of numbers that represent firmware programs to be installed in the device. These programs are not free software. A few numbers to be deposited into device registers are one thing; a substantial program in binary is another.

The presence of these binary-only programs in \"source\" files of Linux creates a secondary problem: it calls into question whether Linux binaries can legally be redistributed at all. The GPL requires \"complete corresponding source code,\" and a sequence of integers is not the source code. By the same token, adding such a binary to the Linux sources violates the GPL.