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Eric Raymond on Minix and Linux
Friday, April 29 2005 @ 11:58 PM EDT

What have we here? Is this a new ADTI? A fresh defender of SCO, a new knight for the dark side, who wishes the world to believe that Linux is a derivative work of Minix?

No doubt, judging by my email, you have already read "Paul Murphy's" piece of work (that is not his real name) [Update: You can now find the article here, as the Yahoo link has expired], particularly since a not-so-helpful "anonymous" submitter sent it to Slashdot, so as to spread the misinformation even more widely (although Slashdot's readers have debunked it very well.) But really, guys. Think. Why give hits to stuff like this? It started on CIO Today, who I believe should also know better. "Murphy" is a Linux Insider author, and they are published by sys-con, like Maureen O'Gara's Linux thing, whatever it's called these days.

What a coincidence.

I could probably even offer an educated guess who the submitter to Slashdot might have been, but whoever it was, the article is so wrong, it's hard to know where to begin. Leaving aside the rest of the screed (I do believe he called us idiots, for example) his "evidence" is a quotation from Eric Raymond's "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," which others before him have also twisted to try to make the same point. I sent the excerpt to Eric, and asked for a comment, and Eric has provided a response.

First, here's what "Murphy" had to say about Minix and Linux, the excerpt I sent to Eric:

First among these is something that I think of as the myth of immaculate conception, according to which Linux sprang forth, fully formed, from nothing at all. Thus a reference, in an earlier column [Paul Murphy, "The Importance of Linux," CIO Today, March 4, 2005] to Linus Torvald's having started Linux by hacking on Minix unleashed a storm of protest from believers denying that what Torvalds referred to as his "free Unix for the 386" could have started as a better minix than minix.

For the record, however, here's how Eric Raymond, in The Cathedral and the Bazaar described the process through which Linux came about:

Linus Torvalds, for example, didn't actually try to write Linux from scratch. Instead, he started by reusing code and ideas from Minix, a tiny Unix-like operating system for PC clones. Eventually all the Minix code went away or was completely rewritten -- but while it was there, it provided scaffolding for the infant that would eventually become Linux.

In other words, what happened with Linux was exactly the normal process you expect in open source: You start with some one else's code, hack on it until you really understand what you wanted to do with it, and in that process replace all the original code to make your own product. That's how a fall-1990 Minix kernel hack aimed at using interrupts to speed processing became a new kernel by March of 1991 and a whole new Unix clone when file system processing was internalized in June.

I must mention that no one ever said anything about immaculate conception. That is misleading. And where does he get those dates? Linus took his first programming class in 1990, according to the linked bio. And what a dishonest use of the word "clone". But, trying to restrain myself and stick to the Minix issue only, here's Eric's reply:

"Paul Murphy has misconstrued the quote from my book to suggest that Linux was a derivative work of Minix. His article contains several other factual inaccuracies and dubious legal claims, but I will confine myself to addressing his misapplication of my work.

"In his article he is describing only one 'normal process' of open source -- we very often write code from scratch, The Linux kernel was in fact written from scratch using Minix tools, rather as a building is constructed from ground up using scaffolding that was later discarded.

"In its very early stages it was a bootable terminal emulator that didn't talk to the hard disk. Thus the description of it as a 'Minix kernel hack' is incorrect; if that had been the case, it would have been able to talk to a disk file system a lot sooner than it actually did. Linus's famous quote on this subject is 'My terminal emulator grew legs.'

"This distinction is legally important, because it means that the Linux kernel was never a derivative work of the Minix code. Andrew Tanenbaum, the originator of Minix, has loudly denied that Linux is a design derivative of Minix either -- in fact he and Linus had a nototrious flame war over Tanenbaum's rejection of Linus's design direction.

"Even if Linux had in fact been a derivative work of Minix, *Minix was not a derivative work of the AT&T sources*! Thus there is no hope for SCO here."

If you wish to reread about one MicrosoftFolk using this same misinformation, go here. To read Linus (and Andrew Tannenbaum) on this subject, go here. Just to be clear, what Linus said on the record when ADTI vainly tried to make the same point "Murphy" is now resurrecting is this:

"Linux never used Minix code... We never credited anybody else's code, because we never used anybody else's code," Torvalds said. . . . Minix, he said, was simply a platform on top of which Torvalds did his programming work.

The [ADTI] study suggested that Torvalds might have gradually replaced Minix code with Linux but Torvalds denied it. "I didn't 'write the Minix code out of Linux'," Torvalds said. "I was using Minix when I wrote Linux, but that's in the same sense that you are using Windows when you write your columns. Do your articles contain Windows source code because you use Windows to write them?"

How often does this misinformation need to be debunked before it will die and stay dead? Say, might there be a lawsuit in the background that needs to make this point, and so friendly souls, or ... well, I don't call people idiots... rehash it over and over, so they can quote from it in legal documents down the road? Let's keep our eyes peeled to see if that happens.

Microsoft marketing seems to work that way. They have a lot of paid-for studies, or studies that just happen to be set up to tilt their way, cough cough, and then they quote from them abundantly, as if it were all true. It can almost seem true, if you squint your eyes just right and don't think too deeply and know very little. And heaven only knows, journalists' articles have been submitted to the court as exhibits in the SCO v. IBM litigation, so I don't think it's a stretch to consider such possibilities.

Here's more from Groklaw's earlier coverage of the ADTI Minix et al nonsense:

Here's Andrew Tannenbaum's page on the Minix-Linux issue, and here's Appendix A, "The Tanenbaum-Torvalds Debate", from the book Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution on the differences between the two. Here's Linus' famous announcement in August of 1991 about Linux, in which he says it is free of any Minix code. It is my understanding that he began working on his kernel in April of 1991. Linux history at Linux International includes Linus' notes on that early email. And yet this warmed over Minix-Linux hash appears.

On scaffolding, while I am not a programmer, I know a lot of them now, and they've explained it to me. I also used to live in Manhattan, so I have seen a lot of scaffolding as buildings were being constructed. Here's how I understand it. As Linux was being written, it was written on a Minix-using computer, like you might use scaffolds to help you construct a building. As the building is built, you get rid of the scaffolding, bit by bit, and at the end, you don't need any scaffolding at all, because the building stands on its own. The scaffolding may be what you stand on to build your edifice, but it is at no point an integral part of what you are building.

Similarly, to write an operating system, you have to use another one to do the building, but that doesn't mean it's an integrated part of your construction at any point, just what you are using to get the thing written. Just like I have to use a text editor to write this article, but my article isn't a derivative work of my text editor.

This must be very important to SCO's case. I surely hope so, because it will get them absolutely nowhere.

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