Tracking Linux contributions now easier

Not only is it now easier to track development of the Linux kernel, but Linux contributors will now also receive more credit for their input, the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) announced on Monday.

The OSDL is a group dedicated to accelerating the adoption of Linux in the enterprise. The new process it announced was devised by Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux, and Andrew Morton, the Linux kernel 2.6 maintainer, after they received feedback from key kernel subsystem maintainers and open source community members.

This new process requires Linux developers to acknowledge their right to submit new code under the open source license. Additionally, the contributors have to certify that the work their code is based upon was governed under an open source license that allows for modification. Finally, contributors can also submit code written by other people as long as it was handed to them directly, complies with the above two rules and was not changed by the person submitting it.

The enhanced contribution guidelines will come in handy when settling future potential disputes about origins of Linux code, the OSDL said.

“The Linux development process has worked well for more than 10 years but with its success has come new challenges,” said Stuart Cohen, CEO of the OSDL in Beaverton, Ore. in a statement. “The measure we announced [this week] goes a long way toward eliminating doubt surrounding the origin of Linux code and does so without placing any undue burden on the development community.”

Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., agreed.

“I’m not sure there is any magic bullet to Intellectual Property protection in Linux, ensuring copyrighted code doesn’t get in there but certainly having more stringent procedures is a great place to start,” he said. “I don’t believe that Linux has ongoing problems in this area but it something that requires vigilance and is a potential issue.”

Additionally, Haff noted that the announcement came on the heels of the Origins of Linux report written by Kenneth Brown at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Washington D.C., released earlier this month.

The report charges that Torvalds did not fully credit the sources he borrowed from when initially writing the Linux kernel. It contends he took a lot of code from Minix, a free Unix distribution created by Torvalds’ former teacher at the University of Helsinki in Finland, Professor Andrew S. Tanenbaum.

According to the report, given Torvalds’ skill level at the time, it is unlikely he could have written the Linux kernel in six months from scratch, as Torvalds has claimed, Haff said. The new contribution rules will help alleviate doubt of the origin of any contributions to the Linux project from now on.

In general, Haff said open source projects tend not to have formal contribution procedures but it varies from project to project.

“People know that at least after the fact, if there is large copying of code, it very well may be found and certainly that has got to be a deterrent for people trying to slip in large amounts of copyrighted code into an open source software project,” he said.

Warren Shiau, research manager, Canadian software markets and directions at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto took a different view, saying these altered procedures make a bigger impact by giving contributors to the Linux kernel more professional visibility.

“Open source contributors tend to not to be in it for the glory but for professional recognition,” he explained. “They want to be recognized for a particular code set and have their peers and colleagues see their work.”

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