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Leading items and editorials

Lineo licenses the RTLinux patent. Back in February, LWN took a detailed look at the real-time Linux patent held by Victor Yodaiken and its associated licensing terms. One concern at that time was whether the patent applied to those who were working with RTAI, a real-time Linux extension which competes with RTLinux.

One company with an interest in this question is Lineo, which ships an RTAI-derived system. In February Lineo told us: "Lineo questions the validity of the patent, especially in the spirit of the open source community." Lineo might still wonder about the patent internally, but a press release entitled Lineo and FSMLabs Collaborate on Real-Time Embedded Solutions makes it clear what Lineo has decided to do: the company has paid up and licensed the patent.

Thus, Lineo is paying one company for the right to distribute a free software product developed by a different group - and, it must be said, some proprietary goodies as well. Why did the company give in? According to chief operating officer Matt Harris,

It made sense to license it, given the concerns customers were expressing about potential patent litigation. We thought that, in the end, it would be better for Linux and better for the open source community to take this route.

Many in the free software community have worried about just this sort of thing for years. Software patents are a minefield of potential problems for any company or group which is trying to work with free software. It will be increasingly hard to develop free software in any arena without encountering companies demanding licensing fees for patents they own.

Thus, for example, there are fears that the Mono project will run into patents owned by Microsoft as it sets out to create a free implementation of some .NET components.

It will also be interesting to see what actions will come from the recently awarded patent owned by McAfee. This one covers "...delivery and automatic execution of security, management, or optimization software over an Internet connection to a user computer responsive to a user request entered via a web browser on the user computer." Certainly, a number of free software update services could fall under an umbrella that broad. Will Linux-based update services have to avoid the use of web browsers in order to avoid a licensing demand from McAfee? (See this week's Security page for more on this patent).

Many free software companies remain strongly opposed to software patents. Few companies, however, can turn a deaf ear to the worries of their customers and hope to survive. As long as the U.S. software patent regime remains in place, we should expect to see more companies having to pay license fees to stay in business.

Dmitry Sklyarov is out of jail - for now. He was released at a bail hearing on August 6 on a $50,000 bond put up by Elcomsoft. He will be restricted to northern California, and must follow no end of other pre-trial rules. But, at least, he is out of jail after what must have been three very long weeks. The next legal step is a pre-trial hearing on August 23.

See this bulletin from the EFF for details.

While the immediate result is good, this story is far from over. It is always possible that, at the pre-trial hearing, the government will come to its senses and decide not to actually file any charges. There seems to be some determination within the U.S. Attorney's office to pursue this case, however, so one can not really hope for that outcome. More likely, we will be in for a long fight.

It could be a very interesting fight. This case will certainly bring out important free speech and fair use issues; it could be the beginning of the end for the DMCA. Or it could be a judicial farce that ends with an innocent young Russian programmer back in jail. As nice as it would be to open another front on the fight against the DMCA, for the sake of Dmitry and his family we have to hope that the government chooses not to file charges.

(See also: the EFF's letter-writing campaign to get the charges dropped).

Speaking of fair use and electronic texts, have a look at this page on the MetaText site and weep. MetaText specializes in college textbooks; they see some great advantages in electronic texts:

In addition to saving all the costs of printing, shipping and warehousing that a print edition incurs, the adoption of MetaText editions reduces sales of used books. With a MetaText edition, there is nothing to sell back and every student must purchase their own copy in order to participate in online assignments and communications.

Copyright law, of course, makes no provisions for this kind of restriction on copyrighted materials. Instead, under the "first sale" doctrine, those who purchase copyrighted material get to make their own choices - within limits - on what they do with that material thereafter. Thus, for example, many of us still have our college texts on our shelves, and still even refer to them occasionally. Others chose to sell their texts and get some of their money back. That is fair use, and that is what MetaText would deny to you.

It's fun to dig through their catalog; one can get, for example, All's Well That Ends Well by Shakespeare. For 180 days. Oh, yes, they got it from Project Gutenberg. At least the price is right for your 180 days.

All's well that ends well indeed. It is not clear that the copyright and fair use rights are going to end all that well, however.

Matthew Pavlovich to stand trial in California. Dmitry may be the hot topic at the moment, but the DVD case is far from over. The latest development is that a California appeals court has ruled that LiViD developer Matthew Pavlovich may be forced to stand trial in California for his role in publishing the DeCSS code. Never mind that none of his alleged illegal acts were done in California. The fact that the Internet reaches into California is sufficient to allow California law to reach beyond California's borders.

This, of course, is a scary idea. Taken literally, this ruling says that acts carried out on the Internet are simultaneously subject to laws in every place the net goes. This reasoning is not new; it's essentially the same pattern of thought that got Dmitry Sklyarov arrested. The world does not lack for bad laws, but a world where all laws are global greatly magnifies the effect of those laws. Since free software hackers are increasingly running afoul of such laws, we would appear to have some very interesting times ahead.

On the astroturfing of Linux Today. For the last few weeks, LWN has been under considerable pressure, from a number of sources, to cover the whole Linux Today "astroturfing" issue. The accusations have been flying for a while that executive editor Keven Reichard has been posting talkbacks to Linux Today articles under the name "George Tirebiter," and perhaps others. There are other complaints as well; see Paul Ferris's article on the Linux Journal site if you want the whole catalog.

The "astroturfing" allegations were confirmed on August 8 when Mr. Reichard posted an acknowledgement and apology on the site. One would hope that this little affair would end here, but it's not clear that will be the case. Quite a few people are highly upset and, seemingly, out for blood.

It is interesting to ponder why that might be. Any site that allows the posting of comments tends to get quite a bit of "interesting" material posted under clearly pseudonymous, if not completely anonymous names. All such postings should be taken with a substantial grain of salt, and one would hope that most readers would know that by now. The fact that a Linux Today editor felt the need to stuff the comment area is sad and unfortunate, but, in the end, it's just comments. The news reported by Linux Today remains separate from those comments.

So, when Wired News reports that:

But today penguins are hanging their heads in shame: One of their own stands accused of breaking the unwritten code of conduct, of attacking fellow Linux community members under the cover of anonymity.

One might be forgiven for thinking that things have gone too far. LWN has encountered very few "penguins" hanging their heads in shame over the actions of one internet.com editor.

So what's the real issue? Certainly numerous people are not happy with the direction Linux Today has taken since its acquisition by internet.com. Some think that a site which was once seen as deeply rooted in the Linux community has moved out of that community. People who post Linux Today talkbacks may feel that their own credibility has been undermined by this event. It's hard to say, but the feelings appear to run strong.

We sincerely hope that LWN will have no further words to say on this matter. It is not for us to involve ourselves in how another site relates with its readers. It does seem, though, that nobody is likely to benefit from more public accusations or stories of ashamed penguins.

Inside this LWN.net weekly edition:

  • Security: Silly (McAfee) patents, flawed 802.11, and executables in PDFs.
  • Kernel: Buried in VMAs; the VM battle continues; synchronous directory operations.
  • Distributions: Linux for IBM eServer iSeries, Roswell from Red Hat, ELinOS from SYSGO.
  • On the Desktop: Calendaring on Linux, Dell vs. Dell, and the Evolution draws closer.
  • Development: OpenML 1.0 spec, BusyBox 0.60.0, State of Midgard, Roundup issue tracker, DBI abstraction layer in C.
  • Commerce: Partnerships: Lineo and MP3, MontaVista and Concurrent, IBM and U.K. Computing and Data Grid.
  • History: TurboLinux 1.0; OSI; Journaling Flash Filesystem in 2.4 kernel.
  • Letters: LinuxToday, ssh, Dmitry, active responses to attacks.
...plus the usual array of reports, updates, and announcements.

This Week's LWN was brought to you by:

August 9, 2001


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