The Penguin and the Elephant
by Shannon Cochran
Plenty of new stories came out of last week's LinuxWorld conference: OSDL has created a repository of patents that can be used to defend open source software from legal attack; Red Hat has launched a new
security initiative; the debut of Sun Wah Linux and the presence of the Beijing Software Industry Productivity Center demonstrated the growing market for open source software in China.
But I was more struck by the old stories that have died away. SCO is, in the eloquent words of Bruce Perens, "still toast." And nobody's talking about "fragmentation" anymore, despite the fact that there are as many different Linux distros as ever, and more being launched every day. The credit for this, I think, falls squarely at the feet of the Linux Standards Base group, which has done a great deal of work both quietly and well. They're now tackling desktop issues such as installation behavior and libraries needed for desktop apps, and their standards have been adopted by groups such as the new Debian Common Core Alliance. In this field both KDE and the Gnome projects deserve kudos as well, for promoting interoperability between their platforms despite a sometimes-bitter rivalry.
Linux has thrived in the face of adversity. A myriad of both technical and legal challenges have been met and vanquished. So why are open source leaders still afraid?
"Things are looking up for open source," says Bruce Perens, "but we need to understand that this is still an extremely fragile phenomenon. There is still legislation in the united states that would allow a pernicious company to entirely shut down open source development in the United States and in some other countries...And we have this elephant in the closet, which is the fact that any open source project of any significant size infringes on tens of thousands of patents in the United States. Those patents never should have been granted, but they were, and if we went to court today we would lose a signficant
number of those [cases]."
Perens believes nothing short of wholesale patent reform will ensure the safety of Linux: "I think OSDL means well, but the patent pool is not going to help. They come from the wrong people, the people who are meant to be friends of open source rather than enemies, and the people who place patents in the pool cannot use them defensively, because they all have cross-licensing agreements...so I think that the pool unfortunately turns out to be spitting in the wind."
And Perens' "elephant in the closet" actually has a friend. "Trusted Computing" is no longer far off on the horizon; sooner rather than later PC chips will come with hardware features that allow manufacturers to specify what software may and may not run on that machine. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, "If software
could routinely identify the software at the other end of a network connection, a software developer could make programs demand attestations and then forbid any rival's software to connect or interoperate. If Microsoft chose to use NGSCB in this way, it could permanently lock Samba out of Windows file services, and prevent any
useful competing implementations of the relevant protocols except by specific authorization." Similar things can be done with e-mail servers and web servers. How useful will Linux systems be when they can no longer communicate with Windows networks?
"Where I am concerned," says Perens, "is where it infringes on your rights to do other lawful activities with your computer...and eventually it will affect the democratic discourse, because to an increasing extent your computer is your telephone, your computer is the way you watch television, your computer is the way you
communicate. We are seeing that the most today in digital radio devices, because every digital radio device sold will only recieve the stations approved by that manufacturer."
"I have no fear of the future of Linux in terms of its growth," agrees John Terpstra, author of Samba-3 by Example, "but the bigger question is the question of what rights are being taken away from us as consumers, because laws do not protect [them]...What rights are we
stomping on that are going to impede the development of software and software technology, not just Linux but across the board?"
Penguin lovers have every right to celebrate their success. But they'd better keep a close eye on that creature in the closet.
Managing Editor, Byte.com
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