Intellectually, I understand the importance of Open Source licenses. The nuances of GPLv2 and GPLv3 can change the entire way a piece of software is used, developed, and shared.
But I don’t really care all that much.
Sure, I lose a lot of “cred” when I dismiss licensing so offhandedly. How can I call myself an Open Source evangelist, or even an enthusiast, if I don’t have thoughts on licensing? Honestly? It’s because I’m not passionate about Open Source Software due to its legal allowances and limitations. Heck, I didn’t even build my career around Linux because of software at all. I’m an Open Source advocate because of people. Period. End of sentence.
Does that make me anti capitalism? Against monetization? A GNU/Linux zealot? Nope. But it also doesn’t me pro-capitalism, entrepreneurial, or a Microsoft fanboi. It basically means I don’t care a whole lot about the non-people-parts of the entire movement, or community, or vertical marketplace. I don’t even really know what a vertical marketplace is, or if I made that up. I love Open Source because it changed my life, and never asked anything in return. And the “it” that changed my life, really means people.
In 1999, when I had my car accident, the aftermath was pretty grim. I’ve told the story countless times, but the headline version is, “Woman in 5th month of pregnancy forced to bus tables in order to support family of 3 as main breadwinner battles against head injury, no longer able to leave the house, much less work.”
When I tell the story, whether on a podcast, to a news reporter, or in the posts on this very blog, I jokingly say that I learned Linux because it was all I could afford. But if I wanted to learn other products, I could have found a way to “get” those software packages. And while I wish I could say it was my pristine moral standards that made me settle on Linux instead of pirating commercial products — that would be a lie. It was because Linux, and by extension Open Source Software, was purposefully designed to give me everything I might need, for free. And then when I needed help, provide that help whether I could afford to pay for it or not.
I could have pirated Microsoft Windows Server, but I couldn’t call Microsoft to ask questions about setting up an Active Directory! Yet, if I wanted to know how to make two Linux machines share user data, I could reach out to folks for help on NIS/ypserv/ypbind, and if I said I was just trying to figure it out, they’d be MORE excited to help me. And perhaps it is the licensing that created that sort of community, but legalese doesn’t garner my gratitude and respect. Kindness does. Kind people do. And that’s why for the past several decades, I’ve built my career around Open Source Software.
RedHat recently made news by deftly tiptoeing through the GPL (I don’t even know or care what version), and legally restricting people from taking their source code and compiling clones of their commercial, flagship version of Linux. Their rationale is that groups like Rocky Linux and Alma Linux were simply taking RedHat’s hard work, repackaging it, and giving it away free. Which… is true. For many Linux users, that’s simply what Open Source meant. RedHat took the work of others and created their commercial product, but since they used other people’s work, they had to release their work as well. In fact, RedHat has been one of the few companies to make incredible amounts of money selling a product that companies could get for free. Their support, both in making the distro and in integrating after the fact meant they could add value beyond their code itself.
But it seems they weren’t making the amount of money they thought they should be making, and so using legally-allowable restrictions, have stopped the proliferation of clones. Some giants in the community think they’ve violated at the very least the spirit of Open Source. Others (several of whom I respect) have taken a more corporate-sided stance on the issue.
Me? It just makes me sad. And before anyone responds with, “If it weren’t for corporate money, Linux and the Open Source community wouldn’t even exist!” — I’m not sad about RedHat protecting their financial interests. I’m sad because the kindness of Open Source has been tossed out in order to… make it successful? Have Rocky and/or Alma been taking advantage of RedHat? I have no idea. Really. But it was the community of people working together in order to make sure everyone could play that takes a hit.
I can already hear the response that RedHat allows people to use their commercial product for up to 16 servers without paying for a license! And yep, that’s true. But the joy of Open Source used to be not worrying about licenses in order to participate in the global, shared experience of working together. I didn’t fall in love with Shareware, I fell in love with freedom.
Our community has been built around people contributing in whatever ways they can, and at times, by only participating. I’ve never contributed code to any project, but I’ve written and edited for Linux Journal. I’ve never done a pull request on a kernel module, but I have spent the bulk of my career teaching people how to use Open Source to make the world a better place, one person at a time.
My contributions to Open Source, and the world in general, doesn’t have a clear business plan. While I’ve been paid for many of the things I’ve taught and created, monetization has never been the reason. If making money motivated me more, perhaps I’d have more of it, and my voice would be heard in more places. But a rationale isn’t the same as a motivation. My YouTube channel is monetized, and that’s my rationale for investing the time into making videos to help people. But I assure you, I haven’t spent every spare moment this past two years making videos so I could bring in $150/month in YouTube ad revenue. That revenue is nice, but it’s not what keeps me excited. When someone leaves a comment that they finally understand octal notation and sticky bits after watching my video — that is what motivates me.
It’s the people. It always has been.
So am I on RedHat’s side? Am I on Rocky Linux’s side? Not really. I’m on the side of working together to make the world a better place. I’m on the side of kindness for no reason other than a kind world is a world I want to be part of. Maybe RedHat’s contributions have made my particular livelihood possible. Maybe not. But we have different motivations, and gauge success by different metrics. That’s OK. But it still makes me sad.