HP's Linux icon chooses politics over paycheck

Politics appears to have divided Hewlett-Packard and one of its top Linux engineers.

Bruce Perens, an icon in the open source community and a senior strategist with HP's Linux software group, disclosed Thursday that he is planning to leave the company in order to become more politically active, a move that has been ill-received by HP management, he said.

Perens said he is ditching his position at the company to speak out on public policies and laws that threaten to limit the freedoms of the open source community. He plans to become an independent consultant, and continue working with HP's open source projects, many of which he launched during his tenure there, he said.

While taking part in a San Francisco rally Thursday in support of proposed legislation that would require California's government IT systems to use open source software over proprietary programs, Perens said his corporate ties are getting in the way of his political ideals. Perens advocates the freedom to develop software that challenges corporate interests.

"I'm too political to be someone else's employee," Perens said as he marched through downtown San Francisco alongside a handful of software developers.

Mike Balma, Linux business strategist at HP, wouldn't comment on Perens' employment status or how the company has reacted to his recent venture into political activism.

"Bruce has expressed his goal of becoming more politically active. If he wants to do that, then we certainly support his decision," Balma said. "We've really had a great relationship with Bruce. He's really been an incredible help enhancing our knowledge of the open source community."

Although HP has benefited from his Linux expertise, the company has been putting pressure on Perens to mute his activist tendencies. In late July, the Palo Alto, Calif., company forced Perens to cancel a demonstration he had planned that would have put him at risk of violating the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). His boss, Martin Fink defended the decision, and noted that he "didn't want any of his employees going to jail."

Perens was to reveal the recipe for a software program that would allow a DVD (digital video/versatile disc) player to circumvent some digital rights management (DRM) technology. Such a demonstration is prohibited under the DMCA, Perens said. He had aimed to show how trivial most DRM technologies are.

After Perens leaves HP, he will follow through with that demonstration, he said.

HP has also found itself on the other side of the fence regarding the copyright legislation. Days after HP stopped Perens' DMCA demonstration, it was revealed that a company executive had threatened to invoke the DMCA against a software company for revealing a bug in the Tru64 Unix operating system, which HP acquired through its purchase of Compaq Computer.

The political strife between the open source advocate and his employer hasn't gotten in the way of Perens' support of HP's Linux efforts. Perens said he wants to stay on as a consultant to help maintain the company's open source programs, many of which he helped launch.

"HP does not want to do without my advice," he said.

Balma confirmed that view. "The skills that Bruce brings and the consulting help he could contribute, we'd love to continue that relationship."

Perens joined HP in December 2000 after winning top status in the open source community for his work in the development of a version of Linux called Debian. He is also the author of The Open Source Definition, a document that outlines the philosophy of the development model, which says software code should be free to view and modify.

While at HP, he formed an open source review board and wrote HP's corporate open source policy manual. He said he would do well jumpstarting similar efforts for other IT vendors.

"That's something that I think a lot of companies could use," Perens said.

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