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Wednesday, 26 September 2018 09:54

Fake news: No Linux devs are threatening to pull code

Fake news: No Linux devs are threatening to pull code Pixabay

The term "fake news" has become a staple in the US, after Donald Trump became president and started using it every second day, and in situations where it doesn't fit.

But closer to home, there are genuine instances of such bogus stories, with one surfacing two days ago, in the wake of Linux creator Linus Torvalds stepping down temporarily from managing the kernel project.

The headline of said story claimed that kernel developers were threatening to remove the code they had contributed to the project, if they were disciplined under a new code of conduct which had been introduced along with Torvalds' temporary departure. [The headline has now been changed, though the time and date of publication remain the same. Strange. A screenshot of the original is below.]

But the sources which are cited in the story do not say anything similar to the headline. The old adage of not bothering with the facts when they do not suit a storyline comes to mind.

One source, a post to the Linux kernel mailing list by a non-developer, pointed out that the licence under which the kernel is released — the GNU General Public Licence version 2.0 — allows developers to rescind their contributions.


There was no mention of anyone having yet done so.

There are a couple of additional points to be borne in mind: one, when corporate contributions are made to the kernel, the developer has to assign copyright to the corporation. Ninety percent of code contributed to Linux fits in this bracket.

And two, soon after the SCO Group announced its decision in 2003 to sue IBM for copyright over UNIX code that it (SCO) claimed to own, the Linux kernel project decided to ask developers to provide a standard, signed form in which they assigned copyright for code changes they submitted to the project to the people running said project.

These two factors may not get in the way of some upstart wanting his/her code back. But it definitely will not make it any easier.

The second source for this article is a man of the past, Eric Raymond, once a luminary of the open source community, but now only a fringe player. Raymond wrote a blog post about the Torvalds episode, and the throwaway line "let me confirm that this threat (ie. developers asking for their code back) has teeth" seems to have got the author of the article in question a little excited.

What Raymond meant was the same as in the first post: yes, the developers could ask for their code back and it was a viable form or protest. Not that anyone had done so.

Yet this was the excitable intro to the story: "Open source legend Eric S Raymond has weighed in on governance of the Linux Kernel after developers threatened to withdraw their code from the OS."

The extent of Raymond's clout in the free and open source community can be seen by the fact that nobody has bothered to even respond to his post when he submitted it to the Linux kernel mailing list.

There has been a tendency among some tech writers to use Torvalds' outbursts down the years as fodder for page impressions – what is commonly known as clickbait. Rarely have these shouting matches on the Linux kernel mailing list been reported in a sober manner.

Thus, perhaps one should not be surprised at this latest attempt to milk events around Torvalds for traffic.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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