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Preventing Abuse of Free Software

Christopher Tozzi

March 11, 2009

3 Min Read
Preventing Abuse of Free Software

Earlier this year, madwifi.org, which had previously been home to the madwifi project, was “hijacked” (for lack of a better word), leading to much confusion for Linux users looking for wireless drivers.  This unfortunate event highlights the legal and organizational vulnerabilities of free-software projects, which need to take steps to prevent such abuses if they want to be perceived as serious and reliable.

The hijacking of the original domain of the madwifi project, which writes Linux wireless drivers for Atheros-based devices, is a long story–the details can be found in the mail archives–but it stemmed from the madwifi project’s reliance on a third-party individual named Alvin Oga to handle the DNS for the original domain.  Oga was initially sympathetic towards the project, but apparently flaked out in January 2009 and pointed the domain to a different server with little explanation.  He has been uncooperative with the madwifi developers since.

As a result, visitors to madwifi.org now find an ugly webpage reminiscent of the early days of the World Wide Web and filled with inaccurate information.  This presents a major problem for madwifi users, especially since the Internet is filled with tutorials written before the hijacking that refer to the old domain.  The Ubuntu documentation for madwifi, for example, still tells users that madwifi’s subversion code is available at svn.madwifi.org, which no longer resolves to anything.

Defending free software

This kind of confusion is one of the greatest problems hampering open-source software.  No matter how robust and well-documented open-source code is, free-software projects are cast in a negative light when they can’t seem to control even their own homepages.

Granted, this problem resulted from unfortunate circumstances that the madwifi developers could not easily have foreseen.  Even so, if free-software projects were to put as much effort into organization and administration as they do coding, issues like this could be avoided.

The madwifi project should never have adopted madwifi.org if it couldn’t legally ensure its control over that domain, and it should have had resources in place for dealing with abuses like this in a manner that would have created less confusion.  Even if it couldn’t get its old domain back, the issue should have been better publicized.

As it is, a Google searches “madwifi” and “atheros linux drivers” still return madwifi.org as the first result.  It was only through digging in mail archives that I was able to figure out what had happened to the site, and where to find the real project.  If madwifi wants to be taken seriously, it needs to take steps to ensure that documentation is updated to point to the new site, and that Oga’s hijacked domain sinks into obscurity.

Madwifi isn’t alone in its vulnerability to abuses like this and the negative impact they pose to the image of open-source software.  Since the early days of Linux, parasitic individuals and companies have tried to hijack free software through dubious means–witness the attempt by “an opportunistic fellow from Boston” to trademark the word “Linux” in 1995, discussed by Linus Torvalds on pages 133-135 of his autobiography, Just for Fun: The Story of an Accidental Revolutionary.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to protecting free software from abuse.  Most developers would much rather write code than deal with boring administrative and legal issues.  And with the exception of big-name projects with corporate backing, like Firefox or OpenOffice, open-source developers usually have few financial or legal resources at their disposal for combating abuse.

But if free software wants to be taken seriously, it needs to protect its image by preventing fraud like the madwifi.org takeover.   Otherwise, too many potential customers will continue to dismiss open-source projects as half-baked organizations that might be here today and gone tomorrow, and whose code consequently has no place in production environments.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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