Linux counterculture

The ever-mysterious Nicmoc asks for background on a recent headline in the NYTimes that reads: R.I.P.: The Counterculture Aura of Linux.

Pardon me for a second while I put on my white lab coat and start talking in my Dr. Science voice…

The NYTimes article is about changes to the way the Linux operating system is made, and the article isn’t about the Linux “counterculture,” at all, but rather about changes that will be made in its governance. But before talking about those changes, maybe it would be good to explain how Linux differs from Microsoft Windows.

Both systems involve hundreds, maybe thousands of programmers, each working on sections of the program code. For Windows, as for Linux, there is a hierarchy of project leaders who decide which code is good to use, and which isn’t so good to use.

Linux is essentially a volunteer effort, not in the sense that programmers don’t get paid for their work – many do – but in the sense that programmers decide to share their work with others under a legal/copyright mechanism known as the GNU General Public License. In Windows, the license is printed in the box, and breaking the seal means you agree to the terms of the license.

The Windows license says, among other things, that you don’t have the right to copy the software, or to reverse-engineer it to figure out how it works. In Linux, the exact opposite is true. Not only are you free to copy the software, but you’re invited to “peek under the hood” to see how it works – the programmers leave their remarks about the software right there in the code for you to see.

(Old school folks may remember early computer classes taught using the BASIC computer language, which used a statement called REM, for REMark. Then you could write anything you wanted in the program without messing it up. My own REM messages were usually things like “Doug sure wants this class to be over so he can go to lunch.” But I digress.)

The Linux programming code (or “source code”) is made by people who volunteer their work for inclusion, and so far it’s been taken on good faith that it is written by the person who submitted it, and that it doesn’t infringe on somebody else’s copyright, that it isn’t stolen from someone, etc.

So far, it’s been a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But a recent lawsuit made Linux creator Linus Torvalds and his team start to look twice at that approach. The lawsuit, brought by a company called SCO against IBM and Linux creator Linus Torvalds – as well as potentially anyone who uses Linux – alleges that there are massive sections of Linux’s source code that are stolen.

Nevermind that the charges are probably going to be thrown out. Nevermind that SCO got a lot of money from Microsoft for unspecified “business development” purposes. The bullshit lawsuit – and the fact that many more businesses are starting to use Linux – means that the process of submitting source code has to be made more accountable. In layman’s terms, by using a signature, you swear that the code is yours, and that it isn’t stolen, etc.

Is that the equivalent of “a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac?” Hell, no! For one thing, the Linux kernel is just one of literally tens of thousands of open source software projects.

While many will adopt a signature process as a way of protecting themselves from lawsuits, this in no way means that the software itself – or the vast majority of the volunteer process that feeds it – will change. Most people I know would be thrilled to be more clearly identified with open source projects. And I’ll take up the discussion among my own team of open source developers.

I see it as the equivalent of adding my signature to the Declaration of Independence. Who wouldn’t want to be involved in something as cool as that?

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