Unjustifiable Criticism of Richard Stallman by Linus Torvalds

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A recent attack piece against Richard Stallman was written by Linus Torvalds on the eve of Obama's election.

Black and white by Linus Torvalds

Linus begins with this:

So I'm pretty well-known for not exactly being a huge fan of the FSF and Richard Stallman, despite the fact that I obviously love the GPLv2 and use it as the license for all my projects that I care about.

How unfortunate to write negatively of Stallman in the very first sentence. Linus Torvalds appears excessively ambitious and uncouth almost every time he talks about Richard Stallman.

Linus Torvalds continues:

I love seeing people who are really passionate about what they do, and many people have something they really care about. It's just that when that becomes something exclusionary, it often gets ugly. It's not passion for something, it becomes passion against something else.

Linus Torvalds appears excessively ambitious and uncouth almost every time he talks about Richard Stallman.

That point of view is debatable. I'm of the opinion that you do have to take a stand on some issues on occasion. It's actually not uncommon that situations arise which require opposition.

But Linus Torvalds doesn't really seem to have a problem being passionate against something. He has had a passion against Richard Stallman's leadership for many years. It has been ugly more than once and this attack piece was no exception.

Linus Torvalds continues:

This is, just to take an example, one of the reasons I try to avoid talking much about Microsoft - I'm very passionate about Linux (obviously), but quite frankly, I really find the whole notion of Linux as being "against Microsoft" to be silly and wrong-headed.

It seems like Torvalds is referring to the "Bad Vista" campaign here. I'm glad Richard has the guts to oppose proprietary software. Microsoft supports software patents and seeks to deprive us of our user freedom. It's really not so complicated. I do not agree that RMS is doing a bad thing by directly an vocally opposing Microsoft.

Linus Torvalds continues:

Yeah, I might make an occasional tongue-in-cheek joke or two, but does anybody really seriously think that you can put 17+ years of your life and make good decisions based on hate and fear?

Hate and fear? Richard Stallman is not a hater and he's not fearful. RMS is motivated by his passion for freedom and his principles.

Linus Torvalds continues:

That was also why I didn't (and don't) like GPLv3 - I think many of the changes weren't due to being "pro free software", but more a mindless reaction against things like TiVO, and the whole black-and-white, "good vs evil" mindset.

In spite of Torvalds' opposition, the developer community has embraced GPLv3. Soon there will be more than 3,000 projects licensed under GPLv3.

The action against TiVo was neither mindless nor even reactionary. That modification of the GPL is in line with the original intent of the license which is to prevent computer users from being denied essential freedom to use their computers and programs as they wish.

In spite of Torvalds’ opposition, the developer community has embraced GPLv3.

Many seem to forget that a track record of success had already been established by the GNU GPL even before the Linux Kernel project was launched. The GNU GPL is the gold standard among licenses as it gains the full confidence of volunteers.

The reason the GNU GPL is so successful is because it's the first (though often imitated) "copyleft" which was specifically designed for the purpose of protecting the freedom of computer users.

Sadly many people were misled by the false historical narrative Eric Raymond wrote in The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

The way Torvalds criticizes Stallman's work on the GPL, you could almost get the idea Torvalds was the original author of the GPL, not Stallman.

Finally, Linus Torvalds delivers the payload:

The reason I bring this up is that while I can't vote, I did want to say publicly anyway that I really really hope that Obama will be the US president elect after Tuesday night.

Through four paragraphs, Linus Torvalds criticizes Richard Stallman, he criticizes GPLv3 in the next paragraph, then Torvalds finishes by endorsing Barack Obama.

I think those two unrelated messages should have been posted separately. It seems that Torvalds was trying to use the wave of Obama enthusiasm to bolster his attacks on Richard Stallman. How sad.

For the Record, Richard Stallman supported Dennis Kucinich, then Stallman supported Ralph Nader after Kucinich dropped out.

Torvalds was trying to use the wave of Obama enthusiasm to bolster his attacks on Richard Stallman.

I find it necessary to point out that Obama didn't ride a unicorn across a rainbow to the White House. There was a lot of confrontation which was necessary to achieve this victory.

It was Kucinich who read 35 articles of impeachment against Bush and Cheney on the floor of congress. Kucinich's role was that of an offensive lineman who helped make Obama's touch-down possible.

I've pointed out before that Linus Torvalds was a child while Richard Stallman worked for years to bring us the GNU operating system. Stallman did this specifically for the purpose of protecting computer users' freedom.

It was 13 years after the release of GPLv2 that GPLv3 was released. During those long years, a lot of effort spent in trying marginalize Richard Stallman. It seems that Linus Torvalds may be anxious now because there is new wind under Stallman's wings ever since the release of GPLv3.

I suspect this attack piece on Richard Stallman by Linus Torvalds may have been a tit-for-tat retaliation. Stallman recently asked members of a LUG (Linux User's Group) to rename their organization to GLUG (GNU/Linux User's Group) as a pre-condition of speaking there.

It's not a good idea to disrespect the GNU-Father.



speedyx's picture
Submitted by speedyx on

Maybe Torvalds promote an opposition to the FSF and Stallman position to gain more donation and sponsors.

Terry Hancock's picture

Okay, I'm going to take stand: Torvalds was 100% on target in the referenced article.

Torvalds criticism is (as it has always been) mild and qualified. The message is essentially that Stallman has done some great and good things, but he's imperfect, and following his every footstep is not a good idea. That Torvalds favors GPLv2 and dislikes GPLv3 is not news, and the truth is that GPLv3 remains fairly controversial among developers.

So, what part of this is "unjustified" criticism?

There's no question that Stallman spends a lot of effort on negative campaigning against proprietary software, and less on promoting the benefits of software freedom. Indeed, when a group of people including Raymond and Perens did form the "open source" marketing campaign to promote free software to a much broader community (thereby securing the successful distribution of free software that is responsible for most of Stallman's present day prominence), he attacked them for it on trivial issues like the semantics of the name!

The same treatment has been given to Torvalds, who Stallman should owe an enormous debt to for the existence of Linux, without which, Stallman and his GNU project would probably still be anonymously puttering away on an incomplete operating system.

So, personally, I think Torvalds is being pretty fair here. Not that there isn't another side to it, but it's all valid criticism, and labeling it "unfair" is going pretty far.

Paul Gaskin's picture

GPLv3 is not controversial among those who understand it.

Regardless of the controversy among those who don't get it, version 3 of the GNU GPL is propagating at a brisk pace.

Nobody I know thinks Richard Stallman is perfect, and neither does Richard Stallman.

Stallman does not owe an "enormous debt" to ______ [not sure who you had in mind here], for the existence of the Linux kernel.

What you fail to realize is that Stallman's commitment to software freedom is an achievement regardless of how many people understand the importance of it.

Luckily, lots of people understand the importance of this commitment to freedom. Apparently, Linus Torvalds is not one of them.

BTW, Terry, you might want to trim that beard if you don't want to be mistaken for someone who might be sympathetic to a "fanatic" like Richard Stallman.

ushimitsudoki's picture

Although I disagree with Torvalds, I don't think his criticism was so much unfair as uncalled for.

He could have easily made his point - with no loss of effectiveness - without bringing up Stallman and GPLv3. That's the thing that bothers me, and makes it look like a cheap shot - there's no need to shoehorn Stallman/FSF/GPL politics into a discussion on US Presidential politics.

sepreece's picture
Submitted by sepreece on

This commentary is amusingly exactly what Linus would probably have predicted. The piece wasn't about Stallman, he was just mentioned as an example of a political style that Linus rejects, but it was completely predictable that a story in FSM would focus on the minor mention of Stallman, rather than the message of the piece, which is about the spirit of collaboration and openness that he sees in Obama and hopes leads to a healthier image and reality in American politics.

This is contrasted to Stallman's exclusionary views - if you don't value software freedom above all else, you're the enemy. I think there is continuing danger that Stallman will have the same negative effect on potential uptake of the issues he supports that Nader has. They both have a level of monomania that makes you root for the white whale...

Paul Gaskin's picture

So much so that you can laugh about what he probably would have predicted.

Meanwhile, you're so alienated from Richard Stallman that you don't understand him at all.

Apparently you think Stallman isn't fit to lead the movement he started.

Let me ask you then, who else is keeping their eyes on the horizon? Please consider this: Linus Torvalds is willing to embrace DRM and Richard Stallman is not. Linus Torvalds doesn't like direct confrontation against Microsoft and Richard Stallman never tires of direct confrontation.

So who will say these things which Richard Stallman says if he were to retire and mind his own business? I'd be willing to give it my best shot, but it wouldn't be the same. I know that I'd suffer all the same character attacks from the usual suspects.

RMS is the GNU-Father. Long may he reign.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

As others have said the article wasn't about Stallman, Torvalds highlighted Stallman's methods and stance as an example of what he didn't like: of what he sees Obama as the opposite of and what he likes about him.

I don't see this as either "unjustifiable" or an "attack" on Stallman himself. It's saying "I don't like this kind of behaviour or attitude and *that's* why I like Obama." and when you are describing something it's often helpful to give examples. It's true that he does concentrate on one example and proponent of something he doesn't like (RMS) but it is one that does the job very well and thus more would be distracting.

You also said:

> Through four paragraphs, Linus Torvalds criticizes Richard Stallman, he criticizes GPLv3 in the next paragraph, then Torvalds finishes by endorsing Barack Obama.

Are you implying there's an imbalance here? He describes behaviours and attitudes he dislikes in the first *five* paragraphs and then speaks of Obama not having those in the next *seven* paragraphs. Sorry, but that sounds like a typical way to introduce your subject in the first half and then move onto your point in the second.


Paul Gaskin's picture

That may be the only time Torvalds ever writes publicly on the subject of Obama. Even so, he didn't waste it - he used it for ammunition in his campaign against RMS.

This makes Linus Torvalds look very different from Barack Obama, the man he seeks to identify himself with.

Linus Torvalds seeks consolidate power through a relentless, negative campaign against the most influential man in the free software community, the most successful man in license propagation of open source projects - Richard Matthew Stallman.

Regardless of the corporate-sponsored propaganda against RMS, peddled by Torvalds and others, some people can still see the obvious - the "disruptive technology" of GNU/Linux is GNU not Linux.

Linux - a disruptive technology? (ITPro.co.uk)

"Linux itself does not represent any great departures from previous technologies...
The disruptive technology is the license and its distinctive inversion of copyright law. "

That article outlines why Linus Torvalds does not have the stature to be regularly criticizing Richard Stallman. Torvalds ought to stop being such a nuisance and just quietly enjoy riding Richard Stallman's coat tails to fame and fortune.

flopper's picture
Submitted by flopper on

I think what Linus does not like about RMS is his radical attitude.

Linus has a right to dislike radical behavior. I disagree with RMS too, but at the same time I support him strongly, because I think free software must be promoted radically. This is a very controversial issue.

Nevertheless, RMS cannot derive an ownership of all software written with the GNU tools. RMS likes Linux to be named GNU/Linux, which is bull. As if the kernel was based on any GNU code (written by the FSF). What you consider the "system" is only a point of view, never more. I tend to consider the kernel the system. But if RMS says the kernel without the system is nothing, he has his point, too.

Sometimes, things have to be done radically. George W. Bush defended America in a radical way, and I have a limited sympathy for all those critisizing him for that. The same goes for radically promoting free software. Yes, I compare RMS with GWB (must be an insult for both of them)!

So the whole issue is a bit of kindergarten talk. Both sides reveal some immaturity when they go too much into attack mode.

Kletskous's picture
Submitted by Kletskous on

"Linus begins with this:

So I’m pretty well-known for not exactly being a huge fan of the FSF and Richard Stallman, despite the fact that I obviously love the GPLv2 and use it as the license for all my projects that I care about."

Well I am not exactly a huge fan of Linus Thorvalds, despite the fact that I obviously love Gnu/Linux and use it for all my projects that I care about.

The day I will divorce Linux, will be the day when Hurd is finished, so please hurry!



augustofretes's picture

Linus Torvalds is right. I could speak all day about how stupid, yes, I said stupid, Stallman is. He's, without going into detail (since I could argument why, but you won't listen), a pseudo-philosopher which doesn't know anything about philosophy :)

Not to mention, by the way, that Linus wasn't speaking of Stallman, it was just the editor vein which exploded because of a little critic, that any person with some truly self thinking can deduce.

FunkyRes's picture
Submitted by FunkyRes on

So Torvalds doesn't like Stallman.
Freedom to express one self is fundamental.

It's been awhile since I've read the kernel devel list, but when I did read the list frequently (2.4 kernel days) Stallman would frequently spam the list with his rants about how it should be called GNU/Linux - really completely unsuitable material for the list.

I actually like Stallman, I don't agree with all of his philosophies, but I like the guy. I don't however think it is that big of a deal if Linus doesn't like him, nor do I think it is that big of a deal if Linux expresses it, even in the first sentence.

Richard is a grown man, he can handle it.

alexa's picture
Submitted by alexa on

I mean, I know Linus isnt a great programmer - he states that himself. Though his organizational accomplishment so far, in fathering Linux, has been amazing. And, I know Linus didnt actually write Linux - it was written by thousands of other people. But, he was the person who got the whole mini-Unix on a PC ball rolling, and kept it on a good track for so long. So, why is Linus Torvalds, apparently, trying so desperately to destroy Linux now?
marire sani

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Paul Gaskin's picture