Many hands make fight work

The story of successful open source projects is the story of triumph over Sturgeon's Law, the famous maxim that 90% of everything is crap. Large open source projects gather contributions from coders great and ordinary, so successful projects need to have someone to separate the brilliance from the bloat.

The story of successful open source projects is the story of triumph over Sturgeon’s Law, the famous maxim that 90% of everything is crap.

Large open source projects gather contributions from coders great and ordinary, so successful projects need to have someone to separate the brilliance from the bloat.

Open source luminaries such as Linus Torvalds display a Darwinian ruthlessness weeding through the hodgepodge of contributed code.

Sturgeon’s Law came to mind last month while reading the various online discussions about the SCO Group’s ongoing claims of intellectual theft by the Linux community. Among the many outraged diatribes and wild rants were some gems, comments posted by people who knew something of the tangled history of Unix and the computer industry.

Who, I wondered, could prepare the open source defence? Who would sift through so much material to find the useful ammunition against SCO’s claims? Even if SCO were wrong, could the open source community prevail against David Boies and the rest of SCO’s pinstriped legal team?

In fact, the open source development model of exposing the code to as many eyes as possible seems to translate quite well to legal research. Within a few days free software advocate Bruce Perens had made a comprehensive rebuttal of SCO’s claims, noting “help from Linus Torvalds and the open source community”.

Perens’ article was originally gleaned from two fuzzy photographs of slides displayed at a SCO conference. It was quickly updated as more information came to light, until eventually the entire SCO presentation could be viewed on the site and the claims debunked one by one.

It’s an impressive example of a well-managed open source effort, and it must have raised a few eyebrows at SCO. By the end of the week SCO chief Darl McBride was publicly accusing IBM of managing the open source response from behind the scenes. McBride’s response illustrates both his underestimation of the open source process and a certain cheek given SCO’s careful campaign of press manipulation.

The Linux kernel isn’t the only piece of software currently under examination for IP infringement. New Zealand e-tailers would love to have a couple of thousand motivated researchers hunting for examples of cross-border e-commerce that predates DE Technologies’ patent claim. Most local observers believe there is plenty of prior art — examples of similar use that can be cited to overturn a patent — but the difficulty lies in locating and documenting it.

Similarly, Microsoft was dealt a significant blow last month when it lost a patent case brought by Eolas Technologies. Eolas claims it holds a patent covering embedded applications in web pages, which would appear to include Java applets and ActiveX objects. A jury ruled Microsoft has infringed and made an award for $US521 million, which could increase with interest and an appeal.

An even bigger case is pending: Burst.com, which accuses Microsoft of infringing a patent it owns covering video buffering, is awaiting its day in court. Buffering is a vital part of video streaming — it involves sending some data to the video player before it is needed, to avoid annoying pauses in playback — and Microsoft will want to win the case to make sure Windows Media Player remains competitive.

Microsoft is appealing the Eolas verdict and will fight the Burst.com case tenaciously. Nobody doubts it has formidable legal resources, but the suspicion remains that its case might be helped if it had a couple of thousand extra unpaid scrutineers.

Cooney is an Auckland reporter for Computerworld.

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