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RMS Really IS The Father of “Open Source”

Posted in BSD, Free/Libre Software, FSF, OSI at 7:24 pm by Guest Editorial Team

By figosdev


Summary: Keith Bostic explains that Richard Stallman (RMS) played a role in BSD becoming free

I will often put the conclusion and point I’m making right in the title. This time, I consider the conclusion far less important than the facts behind it.

The title is tongue-in-cheek; I know rms HATES being called “The Father of Open Source” but the facts still point to this being sort of true. I wrote this to share the facts, but an article still needs a title.

“My move years ago to Free Software from Open Source was based on the former being more real and more honest than the latter.”RMS of course, is the father of Free Software. When I started out with Open Source, I found too many inconsistencies that I often summarise as “Open Source rewriting history”, which is to say it lies to people. My move years ago to Free Software from Open Source was based on the former being more real and more honest than the latter.

Credit where credit is due, for the things OSI co-founder Perens has been candid about. Eric S. Raymond (ESR) has stated his opinion on various occasions, that the position of rms in all this history was overstated — and he has frequently damned rms with faint praise.

This is part of the rhetoric of Open Source, and I find it terribly petty. They, in turn, react to people trying to set the record straight (the record they lie about) as US being petty. But the bulk of how I feel about it can nonetheless be summed up in the letter Perens wrote to the Debian community in 1999, where he says that Open Source “overshadowed” Free Software, and that this was “never fair”.

Having gradually become disgusted with Open Source, even calling it a scam on several occasions, I think we got many glimpses of the present several years ago. Today, even some people who use the term “Open Source” (thus giving OSI more power to speak, while Free Software loses notoriety for its work that OSI co-opted) are disillusioned with the Linux Foundation (LF) while I consider LF to be a perfect example of what “Open Source” has always been.

Techrights is hosting old Debian emails that are already referring to source being “Open” in 1996, most of the “Open Source Definition” had already been written as the Debian Free Software Guidelines (by the same author), and OpenBSD forked from NetBSD in 1995 — years before “Open Source” was “coined”.”However, when I complain about “Open Source” I am complaining about the same thing Perens did in 1999 — the “Open Source” that began when Christine Peterson “coined” the term in 1998. Techrights is hosting old Debian emails that are already referring to source being “Open” in 1996, most of the “Open Source Definition” had already been written as the Debian Free Software Guidelines (by the same author), and OpenBSD forked from NetBSD in 1995 — years before “Open Source” was “coined”.

It’s no revelation to OpenBSD developers (or to pre-SCO Caldera, who used the term “Open” for two products in reference to the source being available) that Open isn’t new, but it’s news to some of the people who think Open Source (largely) started in early 1998.

Since going back to review the history of Open Source (as OSI-led) is what made me leave it behind for something more honest, I have also become increasingly curious about the pre-history of OSI-led Open Source, namely the BSD world.

Father and sonI don’t as of yet put pre-OSI “Open” in the same category as the BRAND “Open Source” (or OSI), because I’m not at all certain that’s fair to do. I mean everything I’ve complained about with regards to Open Source is from 1998 onwards. So what about the rest?

Of course Perens and ESR can have the credit for OSI, and sometimes OSI has taken the credit for things Free Software did (and to be fair, Perens and Eric Raymond were certainly contributors to Free Software, even before OSI was founded. Maybe Raymond felt he never got enough credit for his contributions).

But this doesn’t answer obvious (for some) questions about who we can thank or credit for the freedom that BSD offers.

“I admire rms a great deal, but you don’t have to like him to admit when he has a point.”This is a new chapter of history in my experience, even if it’s an old one to those who were there. So the conclusions really DON’T matter as much as the facts that lead to them. Still, as I work on getting an overall picture, the exploration is fascinating. Marshall McKusick (Often referred to as Kirk McKusick) gives interesting lectures on the history of BSD, and those aren’t the only history I’ve paid attention to but they certainly help.

I was at one point directed to a quote from Keith Packard, of X11 fame:

Unfortunately, Richard Stallman, the author of the GPL and quite an interesting individual lived at 5405 DEC square, he lived up on the sixth floor I think? Had an office up there; he did not have an apartment. And we knew him extremely well. He was a challenging individual to get along with. He would regularly come down to our offices and ask us, or kind of rail at us, for not using the GPL.

This did not make a positive impression on me, this was my first interactions with Richard directly and I remember thinking at the time, “this guy is a little, you know, I’m not interested in talking to him because he’s so challenging to work with.”

And so, we should have listened to him then but we did not because, we know him too well, I guess, and met him as well.

He really was right, we need to remember that!

These are familiar sentiments for people who have paid attention to Bruce Perens over the years (both for and against rms) both publicly and in Debian-private. I admire rms a great deal, but you don’t have to like him to admit when he has a point.

I wouldn’t have written an article just to quote Keith Packard. It’s not that Packard isn’t notable, he definitely is — it’s that this quote by itself “isn’t news” enough to inspire an article about it. What I was looking for was a better understanding of the differences between BSD and rms, or BSD and the FSF. And I know there are plenty; I greatly admire the work of Theo de Raadt (which I use as I type this) but he has often railed against rms and Free Software — and I am still very sincerely interested in getting “BSD’s side of the story” on all this. I avoided OpenBSD for a long time because of the song “Home to Hypocrisy”, which lampoons rms as both a hypocrite and as being unreasonable.

“The head of FreeBSD (of their foundation?) wants to work more closely with Linux developers. I don’t think that’s going to yield any fruit, I think Linux is going to become more corporate and useless and co-opted.”At a time when Open Source has worked so hard to discredit rms, I certainly don’t feel like that’s fair. On the other hand, I really do appreciate the work de Raadt has done (I don’t think he even wrote that song) and I don’t automatically hold it against him that he and rms have had their differences about philosophy — OSI came about later. The more I read about BSD’s justifications for their way of doing things, the more tolerable I find it. Note I said tolerable — I did not say I entirely agree with it.

What I have said about this is that BSD is not (ever) going to do things the FSF way or the rms way. The head of FreeBSD (of their foundation?) wants to work more closely with Linux developers. I don’t think that’s going to yield any fruit, I think Linux is going to become more corporate and useless and co-opted. But who knows what is really meant when the head of the FreeBSD Foundation (not de Raadt, who started OpenBSD) talks about working more closely with Linux developers?

I know some of de Raadt’s feelings — because he speaks very candidly about them — regarding copylefting BSD software. He’s NOT a fan. He questions both the legality and the morality of doing so; but rather than paint this as de Raadt vs. rms, as de Raadt may (unintentionally or deliberately) do, I think of this quandary as BSD vs. Free Software. And not in the sense that it’s antagonistic, (which it sometimes is) but I’m extremely interested in both the legality and ethics (“morality”) of doing so, because I think it’s a good direction for Free Software and regardless of what my opinion is, it’s EXACTLY what is already being done.

“Yes, he is the person who coined POSIX, but BSD predates POSIX. It predates the FSF and even GNU.”I happen to support it. And although de Raadt has his objections, I’m not yet convinced that BOTH rms and say, Eben Moglen (or for that matter, emulatorman) have this wrong. I want to understand the BSD position a lot better, but that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily going to agree with de Raadt on this.

I don’t expect cooperation from BSD — I’m NOT out to convert BSD into doing anything they’ve been invited to do a thousand times. They have their way, Free Software has its way. What I support is Free Software doing (within reason and ethical limitations) what it needs to do to survive. That’s why I continue to support adding to BSD and copylefting the additions.

But my interest in understanding BSD’s position is no less sincere. They have a complaint, I do not doubt their honesty (I find BSD far more sincere than I find Open Source in general, even if very many people consider BSD to be PART of Open Source) and even if it takes years I would like to understand their position well enough that I COULD advocate it myself, IF I wanted to. That doesn’t mean I will, but it’s never been a boon for me to misunderstand the positions on either side. I want intimate knowledge of BSD’s real position — despite the obvious fact that “BSD” is far from a single entity; as much as (or even more than) with “Linux”. This “position” will certainly have facets.

But getting back to the central theme of this article, as well as back to what McKusick has said about BSD history, he credits Keith Bostic, (Not to be confused with Keith Packard) the “third” person hired to work on BSD in the early days. What does he credit Bostic with? Among other things, making the whole of BSD freely redistributable. Several people worked on that of course, once the push and then the decision was made. It’s Bostic who is credited with the pushing.

To me that’s extraordinary; I mean here you have this really wonderful OS that I feel is important to the future of Free Software (more than Linux at this point) and it’s an important part of the past and present as well. And this Bostic sounds like the rms of BSD! So what could I learn if I started there and tried to find out more?

I may find more and until then, I have a quote directly from Bostic himself. I asked him about it, after reading this FSF page: “People sometimes ask whether BSD too is a version of GNU, like GNU/Linux. The BSD developers were inspired to make their code free software by the example of the GNU Project, and explicit appeals from GNU activists helped persuade them…”

I was a bit sceptical. I really consider rms to be one of the more honest people you can find in the tech world, but I wouldn’t trust him (even based on my own personal experience) to NEVER a. overstate or understate something or b. ignore / dismiss a detail that I consider very important. I think people who disagree with him tend to overstate these, at least a bit unfairly, but though I consider rms MORE honest than most people, these are the boundaries where being sceptical is a real possibility.

So I asked Bostic himself. Originally, his reply was:

“It’s true. John Gillmore & Richard Stallman convinced me that opening up the sources was worthwhile, we wouldn’t have done that without their urging.”

He continued to spell the name that way later but I’m fairly confident he was referring to John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This is a huge deal to me, because I’ve long noted the penchant Open Source has of painting rms has a has-been, as someone whose contributions to freedom are incidental or overstated — he is the Chief GNUsiance after all, and some people would prefer you think of him as Merely a nuisance — a busybody, an insufferable know-it-all sticking his nose into YOUR work.

“As for why it matters that RMS was part of this, as I’ve said before — the reason some people (even at the FSF, and in at least the more modern variety / chapter / establishment of Open Source) people try to downlplay Stallman’s role is so they can downplay the importance of his movement — You know, Us.”His awards and recognitions are many, though I’m more impressed by his work than his recognition. And yet in getting into this history, I honestly expected to find a very vital part of Free Software (some say “Open Source”) history that we CAN’T give rms much hand in. Yes, he is the person who coined POSIX, but BSD predates POSIX. It predates the FSF and even GNU. So surely, (I thought before asking Bostic) someone is exaggerating Stallman’s role, right? I mean, what does rms really have to do with BSD?

When I asked if I could quote him, Bostic clarified what he had already said. He said of course the collaboration between BSD and the FSF was limited (I would assume it was more limited than the collaboration with Debian, which we are learning more about these days) but there was cross-talk, and that “I’d credit John Gillmore more than Richard in our push towards Open Source, but both were there, and John was certainly working with Richard, IIRC.”

This is very cool as well. I didn’t know Gilmore or the EFF (unless there is another person and I have this wrong) had any connection to this stuff either.

I already know (from the talks McKusick gave, circa 2010/2011 at various conferences, which he probably still does) that the goal of liberating BSD came later, probably in the 80s or even the 90s after the FSF was founded. The famous lawsuit that followed also came later, which was still going on when Linus Torvalds announced Linux (Torvalds has said that if BSD hadn’t been tied up in litigation, Linux probably would have never been written. But that’s already a common quote).

As for why it matters that RMS was part of this, as I’ve said before — the reason some people (even at the FSF, and in at least the more modern variety/chapter/establishment of Open Source) people try to downlplay Stallman’s role is so they can downplay the importance of his movement — You know, Us. Attacking rms, as Techrights published well before he was ousted, is a goal as part of attacking Free Software in general. Downplaying rms downplays the importance of freedom itself. “Don’t listen to these guys, they’re spouting the same garbage Stallman says”.

Of course BSD (broadly speaking) has their own take(s) on freedom, not entirely in line with the FSF’s, or Stallman’s, and which sometimes will overlap more with the thing that “Open Source” now refers to.

“I consider history more important to the present than it is to the past. Without it, the present is missing context.”I am still interested in learning more about that. But in trying to do exactly that, I learned that rms has had influences even in ways which I would not have guessed.

The conclusion of this article is not the most substantial aspect of it, by far. I think the details and the facts are pretty interesting, in light of the things some people say. I still think Keith Bostic is a very big deal as well, and it was an honour to be able to talk to him. I would still thank him and credit him for his effort in liberating BSD — I kind of doubt Gilmore and rms would have gotten quite as far in the BSD world without Bostic as part of the interface!

But that’s a common theme in the BSD world (and the tech world, broadly speaking) as when it was up to someone at DARPA to evaluate BSD’s TCP/IP stack vs. BB&N’s, and the “neutral third party” chosen by DARPA was someone who the BSD devs had already worked with. It’s good to have advocates and people who understand your work, even when your offering is already great.

“As far as Linux, I’m a supporter of all Open Source systems… If you create a tool that people find useful and that moves us all forward, well, I’m going to support you in that!” — Keith Bostic

I consider history more important to the present than it is to the past. Without it, the present is missing context. This benefits some, but truth (and therefore justice) benefits more from context and a fair treatment of facts. I want to do both BSD, and rms (thus our movement) justice — and that means a superficial take on facts will get us less than a reasonable study of history will. I find these things interesting, but not as trivia. The “big picture” matters now as much as ever, and the details (with care) may yet get us there.

Long live rms, Long live BSD, and happy hacking.

Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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