Linux luminaries including Linus Torvalds and Jon 'maddog' Hall attempted to answer this question during a low-key panel session in the darkest depths of Comdex this week.
In a debate about the internationalisation of Linux, the panel was asked whether Linux would suffer the same problems with software piracy that Microsoft and others have in areas such as Asia and Eastern Europe. The 200 or so delegates heard several opinions, but none that nailed down the awkward question.
Torvalds, founder of the Linux operating system, said piracy is part of the development process for the computing industry. "The way the computing industry came to be was through piracy, it drove the acceptance of standards," he said.
In a thinly veiled swipe at rivals, Torvalds continued: "That's how many companies became so common. Now they don't need piracy, they want to stamp it out."
He added that open source makes Linux less vulnerable to piracy. "You can make bootleg CDRoms without cheating. There is a disincentive to cheat because you can 'not' do it legally."
Linux piracy is an odd concept, when the Linux kernel is open source and freely available. Where the debate lies is over code built on top of the kernel and controlling copyright on enhanced distributions of the operating system.
There is also debate over copyright ownership when elements of a Linux product have been developed by different people under the open source model. One method of protecting developers is the General Public Licence (GPL) system. But the panel agreed that it relies on good faith among developers not to claim other people's work as their own.
Jon Hall, executive director of Linux International, said most developers have difficulties understanding GPL, "because they are too terrified about having to give up their software". Questions have also been raised over the validity of GPL in markets such as Spain.
Torvalds also addressed the issue of whether the Linux market would become fragmented, creating proprietary versions for different devices - something that damaged the Unix market.
"We certainly will see fragmentation. We'll see people doing [development for] high end and they will be far off from people doing PDAs. The two will never really meet. There are synergies, but it doesn't mean they will use the same tools. The problem is when you get infighting ... that's what happened with Unix," he said.
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