Binary blobs, free software, and Fedora

Fedora is a truly free distribution that is not as widely recognised as it should be, Jonathan Corbet claims

LWN recently pointed at a software review claiming that Fedora Core 6 was so bad that the whole distribution should simply be shut down. The failing which led to such a dire prescription was a lack of proprietary software. According to the reviewer:

"I appreciate the fact that distributions like Fedora Core are still focused on free-as-in-rights software, but today's Web content requires more proprietary browser plugins than yesterday's did, and today's hardware is increasingly designed to be dependent on proprietary binary blobs in the form of firmware and driver packages... Users do not want to hear reasons and excuses for why the operating environment doesn't work with their favorite Web sites or computer hardware -- all they know is that it doesn't work, and making it work is not a simple or obvious process."

This reviewer is not the only one to express this point of view; there would appear to be a rising chorus out there calling on Linux distributors to load up their systems with proprietary code. Some distributors have heeded this call, as witnessed by (for example) Ubuntu's decision to include more binary drivers by default in its next release.

It's not too hard to see where this pressure is coming from. A prospective user with a problematic laptop will be happier with a distribution which "just works." Most of the people who truly care about free software are likely to be using a free system already, so it is easy to imagine that the next wave of users will be less concerned -- at the outset -- about software freedom. So they will gravitate toward a system which does what they want to do (running on closed hardware, playing patent-encumbered media, etc.) without concerning themselves much about the provenance of the software they are using.

The fact that many of these users worry little about software freedom now does not mean that they will never care, however. Very few of us were born knowing that free software is a better solution, that using free software is an important part of being free in general. Just like most of us have learned, over time, that saving some of the money we earn, while perhaps being inconvenient in the short term, brings long-term benefits, we have also learned that using free software - and helping to improve that software - is better in the long term. Certainly some subset of the new users coming to Linux will come to understand this fact as well.

But it will not matter how well these users understand the fine points of software freedom if, by the time they have figured it out, there are no free operating systems for them to run. If we want free systems then, we have to build and use free systems now. There can be a place for a binary blob which enables a specific bit of hardware to work; the author would argue that running such a blob is not an inherently immoral act. But it is not necessarily a wise act, and a distribution which quietly installs such blobs on an unsuspecting user's system in the name of "it just works" is not necessarily doing that user any favors.

As a thought experiment, consider how things might have gone if the Linux community had accepted the "just works (most of the time)" non-free Java implementation that Sun made available. Linux distributors, rather than put large amounts of work into making Java code work with free alternatives, could have simply shipped Sun's version. Had they done so, would we have (the promise of) a GPL-licensed Java from Sun now? If we simply accept proprietary drivers in the name of "it just works," when, exactly, do we think free drivers will become available?

So criticism of Fedora -- or any other distributor which sticks to free software principles -- is, at best, misplaced. There are proprietary systems out there for people who want to run them, but Linux is about free software. It makes no sense to try to push proprietary code onto a distribution which has set a goal of being 100 percent free, and it is silly to criticize such a distribution for containing only free software. We should, instead, be appreciative of the vast amount of work that has gone into giving us a 100 percent free system -- and help to improve that system.

Along these lines, it becomes natural to wonder why the Free Software Foundation has not recognized the work done by the Fedora Project to make its distribution entirely free. Instead, the FSF has put its energy into promoting obscure distributions like gNewSense and UTUTO. It seems that the Fedora developers and the FSF have been talking about recognition for Fedora, resulting in the posting of this message from Richard Stallman. It covers a number of issues, including firmware, fonts, patents, and more. One sticking point, it would seem, is this:

"We can certainly go through the [Fedora packaging] guidelines. We have not yet done so, but we know of one problem in the current policy: it says that packages can be included which qualify as open source but not as free software. In other words, not all packages need to meet the definition of free software."

Given the people involved with Fedora, and the work that has been done to eliminate packages with problematic licensing, the author has no qualms in saying that Fedora is a truly free distribution. It is unfortunate that the work which has gone into the creation of this distribution is not as widely recognized as it should be. If we want to promote free software, and if we want to live in a world where we can use exclusively free software, we should not hesitate to acknowledge the work of those who have built free systems, and who have not given in to those pushing for the addition of proprietary code. They are doing the work we so very much want to see done, and we are far richer for it.

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