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Torvalds: Open Source Keeps People Honest

The father of Linux talks with InformationWeek about data-center Linux, trust, and SCO Group's lawsuits.
InformationWeek: We presume that you, too, are now a salaried open-source developer. Is that accurate? And if so, has that influenced your perspective on these things?

Torvalds: It's accurate, and yes, the concerns that situation raises is why it took me over a decade to get into this position. And even then I chose to try to make it as obvious as I possibly could that I'm still an independent agent ("stubborn as hell," as most bosses would say). The nonprofit position of OSDL helps--it clearly has strong commercial interests, but at least it's one step removed from the most direct influences. And I already mentioned my contract.

In the end, most people tend to trust me just because they've seen the track record. And even when they don't, we get back to the previous answer about the process being more important than any particular person.

InformationWeek: You've been an outspoken critic of SCO Group's threats and lawsuits against the Linux user and developer community. Legal arguments aside, has the open-source community learned anything from this whole episode about the need for more checks and balances in how open-source code gets vetted?

Torvalds: I think our "vetting" has been pretty good all along, but there has certainly been some discussion on explicit documentation of that situation, so we can possibly go back and point to it more easily.

The open development model already makes it pretty well traceable. We've been very successful indeed in tracking down the sources of various pieces of the kernel as SCO has been doing their PR thing, and I'm happy with just how quickly we've been able to totally debunk every single silly claim SCO has had. But we might make that existing implicit accountability even more explicit.

I actually think that the most important part of the SCO lawsuits has been an appreciation of how the commercial and technical interests work together. Now, as you're probably aware, most Linux developers (including me) have always been pretty enthusiastic about having commercial entities involved and doing the parts that a lot of technical people just can't get interested in (i.e., marketing, customer support, etc.). But there [have] always been the "hard-core" tech people who just found the company involvement distasteful.

And I think the SCO case has made it clear that it's been very useful to have big commercial companies involved, because they do not just [do] marketing and customer support, but they also have lawyers and are able to fight the FUD on that side. So I think we've seen how well the symbiosis between commercial interests and the technical interests of open source can really work. And that, I think, is fundamentally important.

Also, groklaw.net has obviously shown how the open-source ideals end up working in the legal arena, too, and I think that has been very useful and made a few people sit up and notice.

InformationWeek: Is there anything about the open-source development model, or its intersection with the world of commercial software and services, that is worrisome to you? Or that needs to change in some way?

Torvalds: I'm not the worrying type. Worriers never get anything done, they just worry about what can go wrong. What gets closest for me is obviously the issue of software patents. It's only tangentially about open source (the biggest news lately was obviously the browser embedding patent war), and much more about broken legal processes, but since I definitely don't worry about the technology, "broken legal processes" is, I guess, the thing to look at.

Photo of Linus Torvalds by Timothy Archibold

Return to the story: Open Source, Part 2