Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » May 2004 » You can trust Microsoft....

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05/21/2004: You can trust Microsoft....

to be Microsoft. The latest breaking news in the Operating Systems area appears to be a study by "The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution" claiming that Linus Torvalds, in developing Linux, basically plagiarized an earlier Unix workalike called Minix. Minix, the brainchild of Dutch computer scientist Andrew Tannenbaum, is (IIRC) a bare bones OS that Tannenbaum uses as a teaching tool in his classes and his textbooks on OS theory.

But how does this involve Microsoft? As is well known in the geek universe, the de Tocqueville Institution has received (and apparently still receives, to judge from this study) significant funding from Microsoft, and has, in the past, done other studies spreading FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, for those of you non-geeks out there) for the Dark Lords of the Evil Empire of Redmond. The bottom line appears to be that these claims are about as legitimate as SCO's claims that Linux is in violation of their intellectual property in Unix (in other words, just a bunch of bullshit). Interestingly enough, Minix creator Tannenbaum appears to agree with that assessment. From the article cited:

Bolder words
Although the new study raises more questions than it answers, in an interview, Brown was bolder in his claims.

"It's clear to me, at least from quotes from Tanenbaum, that Linus started from Minix...He just sat down with Minix and wrote this product. By definition, that is not an invention," Brown said. "If you sit down with the Ford blueprints and build a Chrysler and don't give Ford any credit, that's not invention."

In an interview conducted for the study, Brown quoted Tanenbaum as saying that Minix "was the base that Linus used to create Linux. He also took many ideas from Minix, including the file system, source tree and much more."

If Linux is a derivative work of Minix, that makes Linux vulnerable to charges of intellectual property infringement by Prentice Hall, which published books on Minix, as well as the Minix source code, but restricted its use until 2000, the study said. "Arguably, Prentice Hall has lost out on tens of millions of dollars" because of lost book sales, the study said.

But Torvalds argued that he and other Linux developers have given proper credit.

"Linux never used Minix code...We never credited anybody else's code, because we never used anybody else's code," Torvalds said. But Unix, he said, did provide ideas: "Linux has always credited Unix. There has never been any question about the fact that Linux was very open about taking a lot of good ideas from Unix."

Minix, he said, was simply a platform on top of which Torvalds did his programming work.

The study suggested that Torvalds might have gradually replaced Minix code with Linux, but Torvalds says that did not happen.

"I didn't 'write the Minix code out of Linux,'" Torvalds said. "I was using Minix when I wrote Linux, but that's in the same sense that you are using Windows when you write your columns. Do your articles contain Windows source code because you use Windows to write them?"

Torvalds isn't the only one to dispute the study: Tanenbaum himself sided against Brown.

"Linus didn't sit down in a vacuum and suddenly type in the Linux source code. He had my book, was running Minix and undoubtedly knew the history (since it is in my book). But the code was his," Tanenbaum said in a Web posting about his interview.

"By the time Linus started, five people had independently implemented Unix or something approximating it...All of this was perfectly legal and nobody stole anything. Given this history, it is pretty hard to make a case that one person can't implement a system of the complexity of Linux."

Len on 05.21.04 @ 08:37 AM CST

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