Finding Ken Brown's Lies

by chromatic

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Brown's stated goal is to make people (and the U.S. government) think twice about GPLd software, which he calls "hybrid source code". He attempts to do this by casting doubt on the origins of GPLd code, such as the Linux kernel.

It's unthinkable, argues Brown, that Linus Torvalds could have written a professional grade Unix workalike by himself, from scratch, with no source materials, at age 21, by himself, from scratch, with no source materials, unless he's some kind of genius smarter than everyone else who'd ever done something similar.

This is the logical fallacy known as the strawman argument.

In Brown's own words, with my emphasis:

Tanenbaum vehemently insists that Torvalds wrote Linux from scratch, which means from a blank computer screen to most people. No books, no resources, no notes -- certainly not a line of source code to borrow from, or to be tempted to borrow from. But in a number of interviews AdTI completed with various individuals about operating system development, almost everyone reported that it is highly unlikely that even a pure genius could start from a blank computer screen and write the early Linux kernel.

Surely if Brown wanted his readers to know what Tanenbaum meant by the phrase "from scratch", he'd have quoted Tanenbaum himself! Instead, note the subtle shift of equivocation (another logical fallacy). You could also make the case that Brown's guilty of a narrow definition fallacy.

If it's impossible for Linus to have written the early Linux kernel by himself without consulting any other material (the strictest premise which Brown's language will allow), there are two possibilities. First, Linus and Linux supporters have lied about the origins of Linux. This is clearly what Brown would like you to believe.

The second possibility, which Brown does not acknowledge because it destroys his argument, is that Linus did not create Linux "from scratch" according to Brown's narrow definition of the term. If Linus created Linux according to well-known specifications for Unix, is it possible that he could have created the early Linux kernel?

If so, Brown is wrong at best. At worst, his argument is a lie and a sham. I think that's the best conclusion. Remember, Minix was also a Unix workalike written to conform to well-known Unix specifications created to teach computer science students the basics of operating system design.

You'd think the professors of that time wanted their students to be able to write their own operating systems.

It's usually worth ignoring twits, but I couldn't pass up the chance to point out a logical conundrum. Are there others lurking in Brown's limpid apology?


2004-06-04 19:45:00
Reduction to absurdity in one step
Usually it takes a lot of back and forth to reduce a ridiculous argument to its obviously ridiculous form.

KB managed to do it in one Swell Foop. Or is that a Fool Swep?

2004-06-05 04:20:33
Best. Calvinball. Ever. (!)
Creationists, moon hoax conspiracy theorists and neocon shills could all learn some *terrific* lessons from this dude, while it's pure comedy gold for the rest of us!

Muchos gracias. I needed a laugh. :)

2004-06-05 18:06:28
You miss his argument
He's not arguing that anyone really believes Linus created Linux from scratch, he's arguing that everyone is *avoiding* admitting where his inspirations for Linux came from. Remember, he said that "hybrid source" (ugh) authors don't care about IP rights. He is suggesting that the open source community doesn't care about breaking IP laws, and in fact is covering up Linus' "inspirations" (i.e. the Prentice Hall book), because arguably he copied their IP while not adhering to their terms of agreement. (Remember, he asks why Tanenbaum tried to get Prentice Hall to re-license the code as BSD.)

Linus' admission that the 'tooth fairy and Santa Claus' wrote the code is not only cute, but it helps AdTI make its point. AdTI can claim it's trying to find out what IP may have been influencial in the creation of Linux, and Linus answers the issue with a smart remark. Does this sound like someone who feels IP rights are important? Linus needs to be upfront about his influences, and explain why he was breaking no IP laws in using them, in order to keep this from getting messier.

The guy is arrogant and does indeed write misleading arguments, but you should take him seriously. Misleading arguments or not, he makes his point such that influencial people will listen to him, in absence of a mature and responsible response to him by the open source community. Jeering and just trying to pick apart his statements for mistakes actually look like attempts to "divert peoples' attention" from the real issues at hand.

2004-06-05 18:51:09
You miss his argument

I disagree. Brown clearly wants people to believe that it was impossible for Linus to have written Linux without any outside influences. No one's disputing that, except Brown's strawmen.

As far back as I can remember (1995 or 1996 at the latest), people talked about Linux as inspired by Minix. This is not the behavior of a group of people involved in a coverup.

If Brown wanted to make a serious argument, he should have covered the possibility that Linus and Linux advocates are telling the truth, that Unix and kernels were understood well enough in 1991 that Linus could have produced a functional kernel in several months. (POSIX started in 1985, for example.)

2004-06-06 07:33:39
You missed the history
KB first claimed that Linus had stolen code.

When Brown couldn't get proof, even after the most tortured, leading questions from people he thought would be hostile to Linus he twisted their words to try to support his theft case.

When they (Tanenbaub, Stallman & Ritchie) came out and cried 'FOUL!!!' Brown retreated to his current stance.

What is the current stance, really? While the theft angle is almost gone, (it's still lurking in there in the weaselly wording) in a nutshell it's something like

"without having been educated in how OSes work Linus would never have written Linux."


"Without knowledge Linus could never have written Linux".

Well, DUHHH... Ritchie had Knowledge too, of the state of the art at his time. Tanenbaum had knowledge too, about the state of the art at his time.

Brown's current stance has disintegrated, moving away from direct accusations of theft to "if some projects take a long time then all projects must, and those projects that don't take a long time have cheated in some way."

2004-06-06 18:33:56
You miss his argument
Yes, but let me use a "Linux-friendly" site to make Ken Brown's point. The site says this: "Linux was created because the licensing requirements for Minix were horribly restrictive, as well as being for-profit." (URL:

As far as I can tell in my research, MINIX was moved to the BSD license in 2000. The previous license, also from what I could determine, required licensing for any commercial usage. Thus, any code in Linux that may have come from MINIX could have been a violation of the licensing terms prior to the 2000 licensing change, and this is what Ken Brown is stipulating. (He's effectively saying that Tanenbaum knew there was a problem and tried to get the license changed *because of this*, to protect Linus.)

Is there any truth to this argument? I don't know, really, but no one has said "no" outright. They just keep slamming Ken Brown and saying he has no point, without really saying *why* his points are invalid. He as much as says that people like Tanenbaum aren't going to make his points for him - he's saying they're protecting Linus. The question is: could Linux being inspired by Minix have been a problem (i.e. is there actual code copied), and is it a problem that Linus simply ignored or never considered? I think people's tendency to be "vocal" about the Minix origins were probably because for a long time no one ever thought this was actually a problem. (i.e. most people didn't realize there were any licensing issues at all.)

What I'd like to see is a clear refutal, based on hard evidence, of Ken Brown's "facts", and the OSS community has stepped to the plate before, with SCO's FUD, even though they all knew it was FUD. That was because it was important to clearly show the lies and deception their arguments are based on. With Ken Brown, everyone's saying he doesn't have a point, but they skirt around the issue of whether or not Linus actually copied code from Minix. Heck, many people have called it Linux's "precursor". So where's the evidence that no IP rights were broken?

2004-06-06 19:08:40
You miss his argument
How do you suppose this is to be "proven"? Ken Brown tasked someone with comparing the sources of Minix and some versions of Linux in order to have something to blather about in his screed. The guy came up empty. What more is left to say?
2004-06-07 08:36:49
You miss his argument
Thanks! Believe it or not, I had not seen that information and thus did not know it even existed.

Now what would be great is if someone from the OSS community would *formally* respond to Ken Brown and show the evidence as to why he must insinuate things for which he provides no hard evidence. This information clearly puts egg on his face, and someone should most certainly make sure that Brown's "target audience" sees him with said egg on his face. ;-)

This is particularly damaging to the credability of a researcher, and there won't be many who are willing to jump up and sacrifice their career to lie for a company, unless there's a TON of money involved. (And if that's the case, the company will most certainly not want to risk it on weak information like in this case.)