Having offended everyone else in the world, Linus Torvalds calls own lawyers a 'nasty festering disease'

Time for a compendium of abuse

Coding curmudgeon Linus Torvalds has gone off on yet another rant: this time against open-source-defending lawyers and free software activist Bradley Kuhn.

On a mailing list about an upcoming Linux conference, a discussion about whether to include a session on the GPL that protects the open source operating system quickly devolved in an angry rant as its founder piled in.

"I actually think we *should* talk about GPL enforcement at the kernel summit, because I think it's an important issue," Torvalds gently began, "but we should talk about it the way we talk about other issues: among kernel developers. No lawyers present unless they are in the capacity of a developer and maintainer of actual code, and in particular, absolutely not the Software Freedom Conservancy."

The mention of the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) and particularly its president Bradley Kuhn seems to light the fuse in Torvalds' mind. Kuhn has been warning for some time that companies are brazenly violating the GPL, and has been arguing that it may be necessary to find a test case to take to the courts to enforce it. Torvalds seemingly does not agree.

"I personally think this arguing for lawyering has become a nasty festering disease, and the SFC and Bradley Kuhn has been the Typhoid Mary spreading the disease."

Mary Mallon, or "Typhoid Mary," was the first person in the United States identified as carrying typhoid fever. She is said to have infected over 50 people due to her job as a cook and was forced – twice – into isolation by the health authorities. The second time she spent 23 years in isolation before dying of pneumonia in 1938.

Comparing Mallon to Kuhn may seem like a bit of a stretch, but Torvalds goes on to explain his reasoning: lawsuits brought in 2009 to defend the GPL around embedded Linux company BusyBox. The cases were brought by the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) – where Kuhn was technical director at the time – on behalf of the SFC.

Torvalds was not impressed: "That may be the shining moment for SFC, but it was *not* a shining moment for BusyBox. I'm not aware of anybody but the lawyers and crazy people that were happy about how the BusyBox situation ended up. Please pipe up if you actually know differently. All it resulted in was a huge amount of bickering, and both individual and commercial developers and users fleeing in droves. Both the original maintainer and the maintainer that started the lawsuits ended up publicly saying it was a disaster."

As such, Torvalds suggested the conference session be titled: "Lawyers: poisonous to openness, poisonous to community, poisonous to projects."

Not done yet

But the fire was not yet burnt out.

"Let's just cut through all the bullshit," Torvalds continued. "The fact is, the people who have created open source and made it a success have been the developers doing work ... The people who have *destroyed* projects have been lawyers that claimed to be out to 'save' those projects."

Neurons firing and bouncing on the inside of Linus' head...

"Bradley Kuhn is so incredibly full of shit that this *needs* to be stated openly ... Lawsuits destroy community. They destroy trust. They would destroy all the goodwill we've built up over the years by being nice."

Talking about "being nice," here is a quick and far-from-comprehensive compendium of all the times Mr Torvalds has spread his particular brand of niceness within his own community.

  • "The GNOME people claiming that I set the 'attitude' that causes them problems is laughable," he ranted in September 2012. "Some GNOME people seem to be in total denial about what their problem really is. They'll wildly blame everybody except themselves."
  • "Mauro, SHUT THE FU*K UP!" the loveable leader told one the maintainers of the Linux kernel back in January 2013. "How long have you been a maintainer? And you still haven't learnt the first rule of kernel maintenance? ... Fix your approach to kernel programming."
  • David Howells was informed that he was "f*cking moronic" in February 2013 when he suggested adding code to the Linux kernel that embedded an X.509 public key certificate.
  • In June that same year, he threatened team members that he would "insult you, your mother, and your deceased pet hamster" if they sent him details on any more "non critical" changes.
  • In July 2013, one developer, Sarah Sharp, had had enough of the abuse and warned she was "not taking it any more" adding: "You don't need to SHOUT, call me names, or tell me to SHUT THE FU*K UP!" Linus did not take the criticism well, claiming it would promote "fake politeness" and the very next day sent out another expletive filled rant: "This piece-of-shit commit is marked for stable, but you clearly never even test-compiled it, did you?," he encouraged his team.
  • That developer who had the temerity to stand up to Torvalds quit two years later, saying she was fed up with being abused. "I could not work with people who helpfully encouraged newcomers to send patches, and then argued that maintainers should be allowed to spew whatever vile words they needed to in order to maintain radical emotional honesty," she noted.

Let's keep going

  • Then there was the time he threatened to murder hardware designers at ARM. "I still really despise the absolute incredible sh*t that is non-discoverable buses, and I hope that ARM SoC hardware designers all die in some incredibly painful accident," he noted in September 2013. "So if you see any, send them my love, and possibly puncture the brake-lines on their car and put a little surprise in their coffee, OK?"
  • Kay Sievers was dismissed as a "f*cking prima donna" in April 2014. "It's really sad that things like this get elevated to this kind of situation, and I personally find it annoying that it's always the same f*cking prima donna involved," Torvalds railed. "This really really doesn't make me want to ever work with Kay Sievers."
  • In July 2015, he unloaded on Google's Gmail team for marking some of his mailing list messages as spam. "You dun goofed," he wrote in a public post. "Badly. Get your shit together, because a 20 per cent error rate for spam detection is making your spam filter useless."
  • "Christ people. This is just sh*t," he urged on developers working on Linux 4.3 back in November. "A shiny function that we have never ever needed anywhere else, and that is just compiler-masturbation," he complimented. "An idiotic unreadable mess ... Get rid of it. And I don't *ever* want to see that shit again."
  • And then there was the time he decided that anyone who didn't follow his particular comment syntax style was "brain-damaged." Using an extra line to close a comment in code was "disgusting drug-induced crap, and should die," he reasoned in July.

Of course, there is still a glimmer of hope that Linus may recognize that firing off abusive emails and encouraging a culture of aggressive insults may not be the best way to get the most out of a largely volunteer workforce.

"Some people do think I'm a grumpy old man," he told university students in 2012. "I realize if you only see my flames and curses, and not when things go well, you will think I hate everybody." He seemed to recognize he may have a personality flaw that he may need to work on, noting: "I'd like to be a nice person and curse less and encourage people to grow rather than telling them they are idiots."

Before adding: "I'm sorry – I tried, it's just not in me."

People tried one more time in 2014 to get him to understand the value of not being an asshole, to no avail. Following a widely quoted piece by developer Lennart Poettering, who noted that the Linux community was "quite a sick place to be in," Torvalds had one more stab at introspection. "The problems tend to be around alienating users or developers and I'm pretty good at that. I use strong language," he noted. "But again there's not a single instance I'd like to fix."

Sigh. ®

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