CRN Interview: Linus Torvalds

Says Matter Is A Vendor-To-Vendor Contract Dispute

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Linux creator Linus Torvalds defended the integrity of Linux intellectual property in an interview with CRN Editor Heather Clancy and Editor/News Steven Burke at the CA World conference. Torvalds--who recently left Transmeta to work on Linux full-time at the Open Source Development Lab--talks about Read Copy Update code, copyright protection and SCO during the half-hour interview.

CRN: How has the SCO-IBM lawsuit affected Linux?

Torvalds: The biggest effect by far has just been a lot of time wasted on discussion. Obviously there have been a lot of people worried. But it hasn't actually affected [Linux] in any real sense. Part of the reason is that it hasn't affected it in any real sense is the way we have done development, because it has been so open, there has always been a very real electronic trail of exactly how everything came into the kernel from which source and stuff like that.

So we actually have a very good notion of where the code came from and what the [intellectual property] rights are. ... It seems to me that what SCO really minds is not so much the code itself. It is the contract lawsuit with IBM. I don't know what the IBM contracts are. It is kind of ironic, because especially when it comes to the stuff that IBM has given Linux, we have been very, very careful about how we accept them. The one thing SCO has mentioned has been the Read Copy Update code that IBM gave us, and that wasn't accepted for the longest time into the kernel exactly because we knew the patents were owned by IBM. [But] we said we couldn't take it until you [IBM] said very explicitly that you also license the patents.

CRN: Do you have an explicit IP protection or due diligence process for Linux development?

Torvalds: We don't have an explicit one. It is kind of strange because the open-source community is regarded as being fairly laissez faire. But at the same time, the people who actually do the work take copyrights very seriously. Copyrights are what we use ourselves to kind of do our work. I know way too much about copyright law. I should not know as much as I do. The way things are organized we don't have a process like you would have in a company usually.

CRN: With the current situation, are you changing that at all?

Torvalds: I am personally convinced that exactly because we are so open we can follow the code through any time. If something bad happens, you have the trail, you can see who did it, what happened, how did it get here, which is actually not that common in proprietary systems. It is actually much harder, usually, to see that in other systems just because you can't go through the main list archives. That in itself says if something bad happens we can stop it. We can go and look at what was going on.

CRN: What is your advice for solution providers who may be concerned about the suit as they are building business solutions with Linux?

Torvalds: One of the issues is the suit really isn't about copyrights or IP at all. SCO and Darl [McBride, SCO CEO], dear Darl let's call him, have been talking a lot about IP, but in fact the suit is about a contract dispute between SCO and IBM. And I don't care about contract disputes between SCO and IBM. I think IBM has the lawyers to take care of that. I also think whatever happens, happens. The good thing about it being a contract dispute is that is purely between IBM and SCO. It has nothing to do with Linux. It has nothing to do with any users. Obviously SCO is trying to kind of push that notion that IBM violated their contracts and now IBM lost their license to AIX, which, let's face it, nobody really believes that. But it has nothing to do with Linux at all.

CRN: It's awfully weird timing, considering that Linux is really starting to build a business following.

Torvalds: But that's the thing that makes it not so very weird timing. I can't say that I expected SCO to sue IBM. But I mean it was clear that in the U.S.-business kind of climate [that] once enough money is involved, lawsuits will happen. This is not an 'if,' this is a 'when' question. And most lawsuits are resolved. This one has gotten a lot of press because Linux finally got big enough that people decided we can make money more easily by suing somebody than by using Linux. In the end, SCO is not a very surprising [company to bring a lawsuit]. Their business was zero and it was shrinking.

CRN: Are you playing a role to try to resolve this thing?

Torvalds: Not really. I want to have as little as possible to do with lawsuits. I am in the situation that maybe I will end up being a witness to one or the other side, most likely it will be IBM. But I am not involved in any way and I don't really want to be.

CRN: What kind of feedback are you seeing from solution providers?

Torvalds: I am not working with those people. Everything I hear is basically saying nobody cares. ... The people I work with are my technical people. They are worried about the lawsuit just because they want to make sure that we didn't do anything wrong.

CRN: Recently Microsoft lowered its price by as much as 35 percent to try to win the City of Munich's desktop upgrade business. How are Microsoft's selling strategies changing?

Torvalds: You are talking to the wrong person. You should talk to the CA person. I am really, really happy that I have never been involved with the salespeople, because that is never what I was interested in. So I don't see Microsoft.

CRN: Are you being called in by vendors such as CA and systems integrators to help win over some of these big Linux deals?

Torvalds: No. I never go to customer meetings. I don't like customers (laughing).

CRN: Is that why you decided to go to Open Source Development Lab and not a commercial vendor?

Torvalds: To me, the most important thing has always been that people be able to trust me. That doesn't mean that they agree with me. It just means that they know what my motivation is. And then it is very important not to be at a company where people start wondering, 'So is he motivated by the company?' I'd much rather be in a situation where people know that I make my decisions on my own personal grounds. Even when people don't agree with me, they are a lot happier about that than me being part of a commercial company and maybe making my technical decisions because of something their competition is doing.

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