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Linux Process Change Raises Questions

Some are concerned that Torvalds' decision will legitimize intellectual-property claims

The requirement brings formality to the process, says Linux creator Linus Torvalds.

The requirement brings formality to the process, Torvalds says.

Photo by Paul Sakuma/AP
Linux creator Linus Torvalds last week added a requirement to the process for submitting code for the operating system's kernel. While the change is subtle, it raises new questions about the open-source development approach and the swarm of lawsuits involving Linux and intellectual-property rights.

Programmers are now required to put in their E-mailed submissions a Developer's Certificate of Origin field reading "Signed off by" that includes their names and E-mail addresses.

Some say the field is an unnecessary measure that could legitimize arguments that Linux kernel developers didn't initially have processes in place to discourage programmers from illegally contributing intellectual property owned by others. But others argue the procedure will create more trust in the Linux development process and provide a needed comfort level for business users. "It could head off any legal disputes such as the one with SCO [Group Inc.]," says Jack Dare, IT director at Hoyt Publishing Co.

The request for change came from Linux users who wanted a better understanding of how the kernel is constructed, Torvalds said in an E-mail interview. "It's really just a more-formalized form of the implicit knowledge that the developer groups already had internally about who was involved in what," he says.

Questions about the Linux submission process didn't arise until SCO Group filed intellectual-property lawsuits against IBM, Novell, and others. Steven Healey, director of information systems for the Swan Corp., a manufacturer of kitchen and bathroom surfaces that runs EDI transaction and domain-name software on Linux-based servers, says the change could fuel the controversy. Asks Healey: "Does this legitimize concerns over how Linux is compiled?"

Also skeptical is Eric Raymond, a frequent contributor to the kernel and president of the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit corporation that certifies open-source programs. "The new process doesn't contribute anything; it's just a bone thrown to the lawyers," he says. "I'm not sure it was a good idea, from the perspective that the kernel keepers were looking to fix something that wasn't broke."

The Linux operating-system kernel is the result of ideas contributed by programmers worldwide. A team of kernel developers sifts through thousands of E-mail submissions for the best code and forwards those selections to Torvalds and fellow kernel-maintainer Andrew Morton, who have the final say on what's included in each release of the kernel. The new submis- sion process is in effect for development of Linux 2.7, scheduled for release in about a year.

"This is about users saying, 'As I put more of my business on Linux, I want a level of comfort,'" says Stuart Cohen, CEO of Open Source Development Labs, a global consortium of technology companies promoting the adoption of Linux. The consortium, which appointed Torvalds a fellow last year, plans to keep a database on contributor names and contact information.

Intellectual-property concerns have prompted the release of products and services designed to track code flowing in and out of companies using open-source programs. LogicLibrary Inc. last week introduced Logidex Open Source License Compliance, software that lets companies restrict their programmers from introducing or exporting code if its origin can't be identified. Black Duck Software Inc. recently released protexIP services, which help software developers and their customers manage software intellectual property.

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