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Did Linus Invent Linux?

A new book argues that Torvalds stole other people's work. But all innovation is based on previous work, says columnist Rob Preston.

The groundbreaking work of all the great masters, inventors and pioneers has been called into question at one time or another. Some argue that William Shakespeare wasn't the author of the plays and sonnets for which he is credited. Johann Sebastian Bach liberally borrowed from others' compositions. And Alexander Graham Bell owes his invention of the telephone to the seminal contributions of Thomas Edison and others.

In the latest such kerfuffle, Linus Torvalds is said to have merely cobbled together the intellectual property of companies and other individuals to create the Linux operating system. The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (ADTI), a think tank funded in part by Linux combatant Microsoft, asserts that the open-source OS is based on Unix code "taken or adapted without permission." This charge follows the multibillion-dollar lawsuits brought by Unix license holder SCO Group against several Linux vendors for allegedly misappropriating the company's code, and SCO's suits against Linux customers for not forking over license fees.

Like SCO, ADTI--which espouses the ideals of "civil liberty, political equality and economic freedom and opportunity"--offers no hard evidence to support its assertions. The supposed proof, culled from interviews conducted by ADTI president Kenneth Brown with a couple of dozen "leading technologists," will be revealed in later announcements and in a book Brown is writing on open-source software.

Other open-source opponents have taken a similar tack: We know this inflammatory and potentially market-arresting claim to be true, but we can't disclose all the particulars right now; trust us on this one; more to come later.

Oddly enough, Brown claims he's an open-source advocate and is calling for a $5 billion government program to develop such software. What concerns him about Linux, he says, is the "hybrid" nature of the software--allegedly derived from both open-source and proprietary code--which creates a climate for acceptable intellectual property theft. "To this day," Brown says, "we have a serious attribution problem in software development because some programmers have chosen to unscrupulously borrow or imitate Unix."

What Is Original?

So assuming that Brown isn't just a stooge for the Linux FUD campaign, he raises an important point: How much innovation, especially technological innovation, must be wholly original, and how much comes from natural adaptation and evolution?

There's no pat answer, but technological innovations must necessarily build on previous works, or they'd be so alien nobody would use them. In fact, from the time computer science became a discipline, developers have used much of the same code to write very different programs. It's the way the algorithms and data structures interact that makes them unique. This was Torvalds' genius--and his creation.

If Torvalds didn't invent Linux, then Microsoft didn't invent Windows because it, too, is based on another operating system, DOS, and many of its concepts were taken directly from Apple OSs. Or as one colleague puts it: "Saying Linus didn't invent Linux is like saying the guys who invented color TV stole from the guys who invented black-and-white TV."

Meantime, Torvalds is sensitive to the heightened scrutiny. Under a new Linux submission process announced amid the ADTI ruckus, code for the 2.6 kernel will be accepted only from individuals who vouch for their right to make the contribution under an appropriate open-source license, whether they're submitting their own, adapted or someone else's code. "We're trying to document the process," Torvalds says. "We want to make it simpler to link submitted code to its contributor. It's like signing your own work."

Let's now hope there isn't a chilling effect on Linux innovation.

Rob Preston is editor in chief of NETWORK COMPUTING. Write to him at rpreston@nwc.com.

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