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In the context of free and open-source software, a binary blob is a closed-source binary-only piece of software. The term usually refers to a closed-source kernel module loaded into the kernel of an open-source operating system, and is sometimes also applied to code running outside the kernel, such as system firmware images, microcode updates, or userland programs. The term blob was first used in database management systems to describe a collection of binary data stored as a single entity.
When computer hardware vendors provide complete technical documentation for their products, operating system developers are able to write hardware device drivers to be included in the operating system kernels. However, many vendors do not provide complete documentation for some of their products and instead provide binary-only drivers (binary blobs); this practice is most common for accelerated graphics drivers, networking devices, and hardware RAID controllers.
Some projects strive to develop a free operating system and will not accept binary blobs if unable to receive documentation for hardware or source code for device drivers; such projects include Parabola, Devuan, Trisquel, and LibreCMC. Other projects make a distinction between binary-only device drivers and binary-only firmware, allowing for certain firmware blobs. Projects following this policy include NetBSD, FreeBSD, DragonFly BSD, and some Linux distributions.
The OpenBSD project has a notable policy of not accepting any binary device drivers into its source tree (however, OpenBSD distributes firmware blobs), citing not only the potential for undetectable or irreparable security flaws, but also the encroachment onto the openness and freedom of its software. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is actively campaigning against binary blobs. It also considers OpenBSD's policy confusingly worded, as "blobs" in the BSD community refer to what it considers non-free drivers, and not non-free firmware. The Debian project included both free and non-free binary firmware blobs from the Linux kernel, clearly marking and separating the non-free packages according to the Debian Social Contract. As of Debian 6.0 those blobs were removed.
For OpenBSD, project leader Theo de Raadt defends the policy of asking for distribution rights only for microcode firmware blobs. "Once they are distributed... at least the device works." Implying that the alternative would be for the members of his small project to code free firmware themselves in the assembly language of many chipsets, he pleads "don't load us up with more tasks." Despite this he favours chipsets that run without firmware and speaks warmly of Asian designs which he describes as slower to market but more mature.
In the Linux kernel development community, Linus Torvalds has made strong statements on the issue of binary-only modules, asserting: "I refuse to even consider tying my hands over some binary-only module", and continuing: "I want people to know that when they use binary-only modules, it's THEIR problem." In 2008, 176 Linux kernel developers signed a Position Statement on Linux Kernel Modules that stated "We, the undersigned Linux kernel developers, consider any closed-source Linux kernel module or driver to be harmful and undesirable... We have repeatedly found them to be detrimental to Linux users, businesses, and the greater Linux ecosystem."
However, the Linux kernel contains numerous binary blobs, primarily containing closed-source firmware required by various device drivers. Alexandre Oliva, the maintainer of Linux-libre, a version of the Linux kernel that does not contain binary blobs, wrote in 2011: "Linux hasn't been Free Software since 1996, when Mr Torvalds accepted the first pieces of non-Free Software in the distributions of Linux he has published since 1991. Over these years, while this kernel grew by a factor of 14, the amount of non-Free firmware required by Linux drivers grew by an alarming factor of 83. We, Free Software users, need to join forces to reverse this trend, and part of the solution is Linux-libre, whose release 2.6.33-libre was recently published by FSFLA, bringing with it freedom, major improvements and plans for the future."
Most of the drivers for Android devices are shipped as blobs linked against a specific version of the Linux Kernel. This makes it very hard and likely illegal to upgrade a kernel version because it requires reverse-engineering, reimplementing the blobs as free software, creating and debugging wrappers, binary patching, or a combination of these steps, all of which implies that legacy devices will never get the latest Android version.
A wrapper is software which allows one operating system to use a binary blob driver written for another operating system. Examples of wrappers are NdisWrapper for Linux, and Project Evil for FreeBSD and NetBSD. These wrappers allow these operating systems to use network drivers written for Microsoft Windows by implementing Microsoft's NDIS API.
Firmware, the software required by the onboard microcontrollers that accompany some hardware, is generally not considered to be a binary blob. In many devices, firmware is stored in non-volatile onboard flash memory, but to decrease costs and ease upgrades, some devices contain only static RAM and require the host operating system to upload firmware each time they are connected (especially USB devices). Although the firmware is thus present in the operating system driver, it is merely copied to the device and not executed by the CPU, lessening concerns about hidden security flaws. The OpenBSD project accepts binary firmware images and will redistribute these images if the license permits.
The BIOS, which functions as a bootloader and supports legacy real mode applications, is a crucial component of many IBM-compatible computers. The BIOS is always 16-bit, often has networking functions, and can be a security backdoor (sometimes deliberate,[not in citation given] and the operating system has no control over this backdoor). The FSF promotes libreboot in its campaign for free BIOS firmware. Since Windows 8, Microsoft has required PCs to ship with a Unified Extensible Firmware Interface, a programmable but still proprietary 64-bit semistandardized firmware, which can run applications such as rEFInd or the Apple macOS graphical boot menu.
So, here's the simple answer to this issue: Closed source Linux kernel modules are illegal. That's it, it is very simple. I've had the misfortune of talking to a lot of different IP lawyers over the years about this topic, and every one that I've talked to all agree that there is no way that anyone can create a Linux kernel module, today, that can be closed source. It just violates the GPL due to fun things like derivative works and linking and other stuff. Again, it's very simple. Now no lawyer will ever come out in public and say this, as lawyer really aren't allowed to make public statements like this at all. But if you hire one, and talk to them in the client/lawyer setting, they will advise you of this issue.
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