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Linus not the author of Linux?

By Jimmy O'Regan

The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution released a report based on a forthcoming book by Ken Brown, "Samizdat: And Other Issues Regarding the 'Source' Of Open Source Code", which challenges the claim that Linus Torvalds write Linux.

Linus responded in a LinuxWorld interview with his typical sense of humour: "Ok, I admit it. I was just a front-man for the real fathers of Linux, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus." He also added that he is relieved that he can return to his chosen profession: "the exploration of the fascinating mating dance of the common newt."

The story which broke the news about the report states that "Brown's account is based on extensive interviews with more than two dozen leading technologists including Richard Stallman, Dennis Ritchie, and Andrew Tanenbaum." Newsforge, however, carried a story stating that "The greater part of Brown's sources are personal Web pages of people who are not considered experts in the field of Unix, Linux, GNU, or other related subjects, home pages of people who are considered experts but were speaking generally about the subject of the history of Unix, and quotes taken grossly out of context from interviews that Brown did not conduct or take part in."

Andrew Tanenbaum, however, was directly interviewed by Ken Brown. As soon as news about the report broke, Tanenbaum wrote to Slashdot to provide a link to a page on his website which details what exactly went on in this interview.

In this page, Tanenbaum says that he quickly became suspicious of Brown and his motives. Brown, he says, was evasive about his reasons for the interview, and would not reveal who was providing his funding (though Wired have speculated that Microsoft are one of AdTI's main sponsors). He also found that Brown knew nothing about the history of Unix. Later in the interview, Brown came to his reason for being there, asking questions like "Didn't he steal pieces of MINIX without permission?" Though Tanenbaum tried to explain the actual influence that Minix had on Linux, the Newsforge story says that much of the report relies on claims that Linux contains stolen Minix code.

Tanenbaum later provided another page, with the results of a code comparison Alexey Toptygin conducted for Brown, comparing Minix and early versions of Linux. The results are pretty clear: there were only four similar sections of code, one based on the ANSI C standard, two based on POSIX, and the last in the code to access the minix filesystem - code which must be similar to work.

Previous reports by AdTI have been similarly hostile to open source. In a report, also by Ken Brown, called Outsourcing and the global IP "devaluation" we find a telling remark: "Open source software, also described as free software, is the neutron bomb of IP". ZDnet had a story in 2002 about another AdTI report, called "Opening the Open Source Debate", quoting a statement about the report as saying "Terrorists trying to hack or disrupt U.S. computer networks might find it easier if the federal government attempts to switch to 'open source' as some groups propose".

This fresh accusation, on top of those already laid by SCO, has caused Linus to adopt new measures before accepting code into Linux: the Developer's Certificate of Origin, which requires that each contributor state that they are entitled to contribute their code.


[BIO] Jimmy is a single father of one, who enjoys long walks... Oh, right.

Jimmy has been using computers from the tender age of seven, when his father inherited an Amstrad PCW8256. After a few brief flirtations with an Atari ST and numerous versions of DOS and Windows, Jimmy was introduced to Linux in 1998 and hasn't looked back.

In his spare time, Jimmy likes to play guitar and read: not at the same time, but the picks make handy bookmarks.

Copyright © 2004, Jimmy O'Regan. Released under the Open Publication license unless otherwise noted in the body of the article. Linux Gazette is not produced, sponsored, or endorsed by its prior host, SSC, Inc.

Published in Issue 103 of Linux Gazette, June 2004

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