Free software's attack on the iPhone

Fans of free software go after Apple -- but their real enemy is TiVo.


Salon Staff
June 29, 2007 7:10PM (UTC)

The Free Software Foundation sent out a press release Thursday pointing out that Apple's iPhone is not the only revolutionary tech innovation that will be released this week. At noon Eastern time on Friday, the Foundation -- the nerve-center for free-software licensing -- will offer up unto the world Version 3 of the GNU General Public License, the contract that stands behind the free software movement and many of its most notable apps, including the Linux operating system.

Of course, the GPLv3, a legal document that sharpens some of the language concerning how people can use free software, really has nothing at all to do with the iPhone. But pity anyone choosing to release something on June 29 -- especially if what's on offer is a legal contract, and doesn't come with a multi-touch screen. You've got to gin up excitement any way you can. In the FSF's case, that means putting out a vague suggestion that the iPhone may be violating the terms of the GPL.

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"The iPhone is leaving people questioning: Does it contain GPLed software?" states the release. Then there's this quote from Peter Brown, the FSF's director: "Tomorrow, Steve Jobs and Apple release a product crippled with proprietary software and digital restrictions: crippled, because a device that isn't under the control of its owner works against the interests of its owner. We know that Apple has built its operating system, OS X, and its web browser Safari, using GPL-covered work -- it will be interesting to see to what extent the iPhone uses GPLed software."

Will it be interesting, really? I rather doubt that the iPhone's potential use of GPL software will give anyone pause as they line up tomorrow. Not to mention that Apple hasn't exactly been very secretive about its use of GPL-licensed software in its OS and browser; it touts the fact on its Web site.

What's more, the most interesting controversy surrounding the new version of the GPL doesn't even concern Apple, but, instead, another popular electronics company, TiVo. TiVo's digital recorders use the Linux operating system and other software licensed under Version 2 of the GPL; consequently, the company releases its source code to the public. But the source code is nearly useless, because TiVo's hardware will only run software that has been digitally signed by the company, cutting out the wide world of open-source developers from modifying what runs on the box.

For years, now, this scenario has caused a great deal of consternation in the open-source movement. Richard Stallman, the free software movement's founding father, believes TiVo is subverting the spirit of the GPL; TiVo's restrictive hardware certainly isn't fostering free software. But Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, argues that cryptographically signing software is a key measure of computer security, and, more important, that the GPL should only concern itself with software -- what TiVo does on its set-top boxes isn't the GPL's business.

In the past 18 months, Stallman's Free Software Foundation has offered several drafts of Version 3 of the GPL that seek to ban what Stallman calls "Tivoization." Torvalds has reacted coolly to many of them, though he recently described himself as "pleased" with the latest draft. Still, it isn't clear whether Torvalds would ever propose moving Linux over to the GPLv3 -- thus it seems likely that TiVo can continue to keep non-TiVo software on its box for a while to come.

So that's the real story of the GPLv3. It has nothing to do with Steve Jobs, the iPhone, or anything else related to Apple. But it's iDay, as the kids are calling it. If you don't mention Steve Jobs today, nobody's going to care.

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Salon Staff

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