Nonsense on stilts — forthcoming

Nonsense on stilts — forthcoming

A clown called Ken Brown, who is president of an outfit called the Alexis de Toqueville Institution, a care-home for right-wing flakes which is funded by Microsoft (among others), has apparently written a book claiming that Linus Torvalds didn’t write Linux and implying that Linux is the beneficiary of IP theft and plagiarism. As someone who researched the history in some depth for my own little history of the Net, I suspected that Brown knew very little about the subject, but until I read Andy Tanenbaum’s riveting account of Brown’s attempt to interview him, I hadn’t realised that he was, as they say, out to lunch.

Andy is a key figure in the story (he wrote MINIX) and knew everyone involved, so when he talks about this stuff, everyone listens. Here’s part of what he says:

“I quickly determined that he [Brown] didn’t know a thing about the history of UNIX, had never heard of the Salus book [on the history of UNIX], and knew nothing about BSD and the AT&T lawsuit. I started to tell him the history, but he stopped me and said he was more interested in the legal aspects. I said: “Oh you mean about Dennis Ritchie’s patent number 4135240 on the setuid bit?” Then I added:”That’s not a problem. Bell Labs dedicated the patent.” That’s when I discovered that (1) he had never heard of the patent, (2) did not know what it meant to dedicate a patent (i.e., put it in the public domain), and (3) really did not know a thing about intellectual property law. He was confused about patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Gratuitously, I asked if he was a lawyer, but it was obvious he was not and he admitted it. At this point I was still thinking he might be a spy from SCO, but if he was, SCO was not getting its money’s worth.

He wanted to go on about the ownership issue, but he was also trying to avoid telling me what his real purpose was, so he didn’t phrase his questions very well. Finally he asked me if I thought Linus wrote Linux. I said that to the best of my knowledge, Linus wrote the whole kernel himself, but after it was released, other people began improving the kernel, which was very primitive initially, and adding new software to the system — essentially the same development model as MINIX. Then he began to focus on this, with questions like: “Didn’t he steal pieces of MINIX without permission.” I told him that MINIX had clearly had a huge influence on Linux in many ways, from the layout of the file system to the names in the source tree, but I didn’t think Linus had used any of my code. Linus also used MINIX as his development platform initially, but there was nothing wrong with that. He asked if I objected to that and I said no, I didn’t, people were free to use it as they wished for noncommercial purposes. Later MINIX was released under the Berkeley license, which freed it up for all purposes. It is still in surprisingly wide use, both for education and in the Third World, where millions of people are happy as a clam to have an old castoff 1-MB 386, on which MINIX runs just fine. The MINIX home page cited above still gets more than 1000 hits a week.

Finally, Brown began to focus sharply. He kept asking, in different forms, how one person could write an operating system all by himself. He simply didn’t believe that was possible. So I had to give him more history, sigh. To start with, Ken Thompson wrote UNICS for the PDP-7 all by himself. When it was later moved to the PDP-11 and rewritten in C, Dennis Ritchie joined the team, but primarily focused on designing the C language, writing the C compiler, and writing the I/O system and device drivers. Ken wrote nearly all of the kernel himself.

In 1983, a now-defunct company named the Mark Williams company produced and sold a very good UNIX clone called Coherent. Most of the work was done by three ex-students from the University of Waterloo: Dave Conroy, Randall Howard, and Johann George. It took them two years. But they produced not only the kernel, but the C compiler, shell, and ALL the UNIX utilities. This is far more work than just making a kernel. It is likely that the kernel took less than a man-year.

In 1983, Ric Holt published a book, now out of print, on the TUNIS system, a UNIX-like system. This was certainly a rewrite since TUNIS was written in a completely new language, concurrent Euclid.

Then Doug Comer wrote XINU. While also not a UNIX clone, it was a comparable system.

In addition, Gary Kildall wrote CP/M by himself and Tim Paterson wrote MS-DOS. While these systems from the early 1980s were not even close to being UNIX-clones, they were substantial and popular operating systems written by individuals.

By the time Linus started, five people or small teams had independently implemented the UNIX kernel or something approximating it, namely, Thompson, Coherent, Holt, Comer, and me. 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, whose original size was about the same as V1.0 of MINIX.”

In view of this, I’d be surprised if the Brown ‘study’ turned out to be anything other than nonsense on stilts. But given our clueless media, I bet it gets treated seriously. I’m reminded of something Paul Krugman said in a talk about media feebleness he gave at Harvard. If Rush Limbaugh claimed the world was flat, said Krugman, the US media would interview a scientist and then write a story under the headline “Some say world is flat, others disagree”. Just wait and see this happen with the Brown book.