​Linus Torvalds and Linux Code of Conduct: 7 myths debunked

No, protesting programmers are not removing code from Linux; there are no purges of politically incorrect Linux kernel developers. And Linus Torvalds is coming back.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Since Linus Torvalds announced he was taking time off to work on his behavior in the Linux developer community and a new Linux kernel developer Code of Conduct (CoC) was introduced, there has been endless malarkey written about both moves.

Here are some of the more hysterical myths regarding what's happening:

Myth 1. The Linux kernel has been taken over by Social Justice Warriors (SJW)!

Hardly! The new CoC is based on Coraline Ada Ehmke's Contributor Covenant, version 1.4. It's been been adopted by many open-source projects such as Eclipse, Ruby, and Kubernetes.

While the code isn't that controversial, Ehmke has spoken out against transphobia, which has been seen by some as pushing her own agenda on open-source projects. Her sarcastic tweet ("I can't wait for the mass exodus from Linux now that it's been infiltrated by SJWs. Hahahah.") helped bring on the flames. But Ehmke has no leadership role in the Linux community. And Ehmke later tweeted, "Maybe they think I have a commit bit on the Linux kernel? Maybe they can't read git and so they think that I merged the commit. "

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Torvalds, with other senior Linux kernel developers, added the CoC. No one else did. The Linux Foundation's Linux Technical Advisory Board (TAB) is in charge of enforcing it. Theodore "Ted" T'so, a senior Linux kernel developer and Google engineer, explained on the LKML, "The TAB can make a recommendation, but the decision to act on that recommendation resides with the Maintainers in general, and ultimately, Linus."

Sage Sharp, the former kernel developer who left the Linux community because of its toxicity, doesn't trust TAB to do its duty by the code. Sharp tweeted, "I have no faith that the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board will respond to a Code of Conduct violation promptly or with a well-thought out response. Please push the board to release an anonymized transparency report on all past Linux kernel Code of Conduct violation cases."

Does this sound like SJWs are taking over Linux? I don't think so.

Myth 2. Linus Torvalds left and then adopted the CoC to get ahead of The New Yorker article about his discouraging women from working on the kernel.

It played a factor. But, having known Torvalds for almost 30 years, I doubt it mattered much to him. There was no new news in the article. The Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML) is open, and Torvald's sometimes angry management style has been on display for decades. As Torvalds wrote, he realized he "had been ignoring some fairly deep-seated feelings in the community."

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Torvalds added, "I am not an emotionally empathetic kind of person and that probably doesn't come as a big surprise to anybody. Least of all me. The fact that I then misread people and don't realize (for years) how badly I've judged a situation and contributed to an unprofessional environment is not good."

Myth 3. Nothing is going to change.

Personally, I think the Code of Conduct in and of itself won't make much of a difference. I believe you can't legislate morality. What Torvalds does when he gets back will make the difference. He has always set the Linux kernel community's tone, and he will again.

Myth 4. Linus won't/can't change.

I think he will change. In any case, he should be given a chance.

As VM (Vicky) Brasseur, open-source consultant and VP of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), tweeted, "Folks, I know there's a lot of work yet to be done and that this is only the first step, but if you criticise someone for taking that first step (even if you think they should've done it much earlier), there's less likely to be more steps after that."

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Myth 5. Purges of Linux kernel developers have begun.

No. And, there's no sign of this happening.

Myth 6. Developers are leaving Linux and taking their code with them.

No, they're not leaving.

Yes, someone under the nom de plume "unconditionalwitness," who had never posted to the LKML before under that name, wrote that people ejected from the Linux Kernel Community due to the code could "rescind the license grant regarding their property via written notice to those whom they are rescinding the grant from (regarding their property (code)."

In other words, they can remove their code from Linux. But no one has been ejected from the Linux kernel community, and no one has removed their code. To the best of my knowledge, no one has filed a complaint against anyone to the TAB. Even if someone was kicked out, it's unclear what would happen to the code they had already donated.

Eric S. Raymond, one of the creators of the open-source concept, wrote, "This threat has teeth. I researched the relevant law when I was founding the Open Source Initiative. In the US there is case law confirming that reputational losses relating to conversion of the rights of a contributor to a GPLed project are judicable in law."

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Richard M. Stallman, who wrote the GPLv2 and champions free software, is purported to have written, "The developers of Linux, or any free program, can remove any and all code, at any time, without giving a reason. However, this doesn't force others to delete that code from their own versions of the program."

Heather Meeker, a partner at the law firm O'Melveny & Myers, who specializes in open-source software licensing, wrote, "Copyright ownership in large projects such as the Linux kernel is complicated. It's like a patchwork quilt. When developers contribute to the kernel, they don't sign any contribution agreement or assignment of copyright. The GPL covers their contributions, and the recipient of a copy of the software gets a license, under GPL, directly from all the authors. (The kernel project uses a document called a Developer Certificate of Origin, which does not grant any copyright license.) The contributors' individual rights exist side-by-side with rights in the project as a whole."

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So, what's what? No lawyer has spoken directly to the point on this issue, and it's never come up in court. I am inclined to doubt that the code can be removed, or if it could, that it would have any practical effect on the kernel.

As Matthew Garrett, Linux developer and Google security engineer, remarked on Twitter, "For every person that leaves the kernel over the CoC, I pledge to help mentor a new contributor interested in taking over their work." He quickly followed up, "Well, so far I've got like an order of magnitude more people interested in contributing to the kernel than people who have credibly threatened to stop contributing, so that seems like a good sign."

Myth 7. Linus is never coming back!

Linus is coming back.

Greg Kroah-Hartman, Linux kernel maintainer and pro tempore head of Linux, signed the Linux 4.19-rc5 release message, "Greg 'keeping the seat warm for a few weeks' k-h."

He will return when he feels like it.

If I were a betting man, I'd say he'll be back in time to manage the next release cycle, 4.20/5.0, later this fall. Or, to be terribly precise, Oct. 22, 2018, when Linux Kernel Maintainer Summit will be held in Edinburgh Scotland. After all, one of the reasons Torvalds stepped back from the kernel was because this event had to be rescheduled to meet his schedule.

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When all is said and done -- for all the hubbub about the CoC and Torvalds stepping out for a while -- Linux is still being developed. And, none of the worst case scenarios has shown any signs of happening. For all the sturm und drang, Linux continues on.

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