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Linus Torvalds in bizarre attack on open source

Do as I say, not do as I do

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Normally we expect an attack on free software to come from one of the usual suspects: payola analysts, right wing “think tanks”, or Steve Ballmer. So it’s an odd day when Linus Torvalds himself weighs in against the principles of the movement.

Torvalds launched a blast against OpenOffice.org, and defended Microsoft’s right to keep its binary Office formats proprietary. “I’m happy with somebody writing a free replacement for Microsoft Office. But I’m not fine with them writing a free replacement just by reverse engineering the proprietary formats,” said the Linux founder. “Microsoft has its own reasons for keeping them proprietary, and I can't argue with that.”

Actually he didn’t — we just made that quote up.

But what Torvalds really did say this weekend is only slightly less bizarre. The Linux leader also encouraged a software company to take its code under a proprietary license, his friend alleges.

At the heart of Torvalds’ decision to refrain from using Bitmover’s BitKeeper source code management tool last week, a day after BitKeeper decided to drop its limited functionality free client, is a dispute between BitKeeper developer Larry McVoy and Samba developer Andrew ‘Tridge’ Tridgell. It has subsequently emerged that Tridgell was working on a clean room reverse engineered implementation of McVoy’s proprietary software, and Torvalds has come down on the side of… his friend McVoy.

Hypocritical — moi?

“Linus worked very hard to get Tridge to stop,” McVoy told NewsForge’s Joe Barr.

Torvalds himself told NewsForge:

“Larry is perfectly fine with somebody writing a free replacement. He’s told me so, and I believe him, because I actually do believe that he has a strong moral back-bone.”

Torvalds continued:

“What Larry is not fine with, is somebody writing a free replacement by just reverse-engineering what he did. Larry has a very clear moral standpoint: ‘You can compete with me, but you can’t do so by riding on my coat-tails. Solve the problems on your own, and compete honestly. Don't compete by looking at my solution.’

“And that is what the BK license boils down to. It says: ‘Get off my coat-tails, you free-loader’. And I can’t really argue against that.”

According to McVoy, his decision to take BitKeeper to a completely closed and proprietary model won support from er… Torvalds himself.

The free client was costing Bitmover $500,000 a year, explains McVoy. “At that point we started looking at what it would be like to discontinue the free BK. Linus strongly encouraged us to do this [our emphasis] once he came to the conclusion that the costs of the free version to BitMover outweighed the benefits to BitMover,” McVoy told Barr.

So is Linus going to come down hard on other efforts to create a free and open alternative to a proprietary product — say, for example, a UNIX™-like operating system?

More than one commenter at Slashdot seems to find this position a little bizarre.

“If McVoy thinks that reverse-engineering is so ‘dishonest’, then why did he offer to give free tools to a worldwide project whose primary focus is to reverse-engineering an entire OS? The most likely reason is that the reason was to get some cheap marketing exposure for his product. IMO, it seems a little hypocritical that he’s starting the name-calling only after the reverse-engineering isn’t benefitting himself," writes one poster.

Tridgell has not elaborated beyond a public statement pointing out that he did not use BitKeeper, so was not subject to terms in its license.

“The aim was to provide export to other source code management tools and provide a useful tool to the community,” he told NewsForge.

Torvalds has commanded great respect for his supernatural ability to resolve bitter technical disputes with fairness and without creating enduring rancour. Perhaps this one case is too close to home, for his touch appears to have deserted him.

Temporarily, we hope. ®

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