When Linus Torvalds goes wrong

In February of 2002, Linus Torvalds (the Linux kernel creator and project coordinator) started using the freeware BitKeeper to manage the mainline kernel. BitKeeper is a software tool for revision control (configuration management etc.) of computer source code, made by BitMover. It is a closed-source product. Some competing tools such as CVS, GNU Arch or Subversion were existing, but Torvalds chose BitKeeper because it was ‘the best tool for the job’.

While some core developers adopted BitKeeper, several key developers (including Alan Cox) refused to do so, citing the Bitmover licence, and voicing concern that the project was ceding some control to a proprietary developer. The decision to use BitKeeper for Linux kernel development raised a lot of protestations in the free software community. To mitigate these concerns, Bitmover added gateways which allowed limited interoperation between the Linux BitKeeper servers (maintained by Bitmover) and developers using CVS and Subversion. Even after this addition, flamewars occasionally broke out on the Linux kernel mailing list (LKML), often involving key kernel developers and Bitmover CEO Larry McVoy, who is also a Linux developer. A group went so far as to start a petition against the usage of the tool. Some wanted to ban Richard Stallman from the LKML. A warning regarding BitKeeper was sent on the Debian devel list.

On April 5th, 2005, BitMover announced that it would stop providing a version of BitKeeper free of charge to the community, the reason being alleged reverse-engineering efforts by Andrew Tridgell, a developer employed by OSDL. Some days later, Linus Torvalds reacted very fast saying that he began working on an interim solution called Git. But, this issue could have a really hard time stopping for the Linux kernel development. And Linus was warned by several people.

This is a big lesson for the free software community. This is a big ‘back-hand’ for ‘pragmatic people’ who value technical advantage above freedom and community. Please, don’t follow a charismatic leader without ask yourself if he/she’s right or not, even if he/she’s a genius. Please, don’t forget that non-free programs are dangerous. Don’t think that free software philosophy is something just for integrists, when this philosophy created your softwares and your community. If you forget it, you will encounter some bad surprises.

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