Grokline's UNIX Ownership History Project



“If there is any code out there that represents a conceivable risk..., we'd like to identify it and mitigate the litigation risk now.”

This is an open, community-based, collaborative research project, a living history, designed to carefully trace the ownership history of UNIX and UNIX-like code with the goal of reducing, or eliminating, the amount of software subject to superficially plausible but ultimately invalid copyright, patent and trade secret claims against Linux or other free and open source software. If there is any code out there that represents a conceivable risk of that kind, we'd like to identify it and mitigate the litigation risk now. If there isn't any valid claim that can be made, we'd like to be able to prove it.

The Method

We intend to collect, study, organize and document the historical origin, subsequent influence and surviving enforceable legal rights, if any, associated with every important feature of the UNIX operating system. Document includes gathering first-person accounts of UNIX development, the code itself, both in source and binary form, and contemporaneous documents, such as manuals, technical papers, textbooks, etc. Your contributions will be vital.

What You Can Contribute

We ask you to help by contributing your knowledge, your memories, code you have legal authorization to contribute, and documents. Most of the programmers who authored UNIX are still alive. Many of you used the software at work. You don't have to read about UNIX in a book. You lived this history. You know where to find proof of pieces in the history of this software. Many of you have old manuals, contemporaneous legal documents, software, both binary and source code, and textbooks. Your collective memory, and proof of what you recall, is a powerful resource. No piece is too small to contribute, because the power is in the aggregate.

The Result

“Most of the programmers who authored UNIX are still alive... You don't have to read about UNIX in a book. You lived this history. You know where to find proof of pieces in the history of this software. ”

We believe such a careful and precise history can provide a solid shield of protection. If we document and provide evidence of the sources, transfer and adoption of ideas and source code, we can discourage or, ideally, deflect future nuisance lawsuits against users or distributors of GNU/Linux software, lawsuits which we believe are intended to slow down or block the growth of the Linux operating system and other free and open source software.

Grokline's research results will be incorporated into a copyright, patent, and trade-secret-enhanced version of Eric Levenez' famous Unix History chart, which will be made available for noncommercial use under a Creative Commons License. Groklaw's Pamela Jones is Director of the Grokline Project. Peter H. Salus, Ph.D., consultant and author of "A Quarter Century of UNIX" serves as technical and historical advisor. Frank Sorenson is Manager of the the UNIX History chart revision.

The Strategy

COPYRIGHTS: First, we want to document how much of the Unix code-base is not copyrightable, by showing that it had its origins in earlier versions that are themselves either no longer copyrighted or never were copyrighted or copyrightable.
TRADE SECRETS: If some piece of code, or piece of related knowledge, can be shown to be well-known by third parties who are not under any contractual non-disclosure obligation, it is no longer a trade secret.
PATENTS: If an idea, method, or function can be proven to be already known, (even if just to the small group of relevant experts "learned in the art") then any patent granted can be invalidated. Grokline, with your help, can document that many "inventions and discoveries" were already known in the field before any patent claim on them was made.

Directions on How to Help

The How to Help page will give you specific directions on where and how to list information you wish to contribute. You can contribute anonymously.

Grokline News

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Grokline's Launch

Welcome to the launch of Grokline. We are ready for you to start to help by contributing what you know about UNIX.

We hope with this living UNIX history project to be able to identify any conceivable legal problems that those wishing to block or hobble GNU/Linux may try to use in future assaults on the community. If there are litigation risks, even just from nuisance lawsuits, particularly with respect to patents, we want to find those risks, hopefully before they do, and mitigate or resolve them now. Also, if we can carefully document prior art, we may find it comes in very handy one of these days. I am personally convinced, as you no doubt are too, that the next wave of attacks on GNU/Linux and the GPL will involve patents.

Grokline's research results will be incorporated into a copyright, patent, and trade secret-enhanced version of Eric Levenez' famous Unix History chart, something he has kindly granted us permission to do. Our chart will be made available noncommercially under a Creative Commons License. We have some design ideas that hopefully will make our chart easier to view and understand. Currently, the Levenez chart traces the code and its influences but not the ownership of it. Grokline's research will fill in that vital gap.

As you will see, this is just the first version of Grokline. In particular, we are still coding the Features/Function page, but I didn't want to postpone the launch any longer. That page should be ready shortly. As with all new code, there may be bugs. You may see ways we can improve Grokline as we go along, and that is another reason to start. Your input and ideas are valuable. This is a community project. It would be impossible to do Grokline without the help and support of an entire community dedicated to free and open source code.

So, with that, let's get started. Directions are on the How to Help page. You'll need to get an account to leave information, but you can register just by providing a handle and a working email account. Everything has been designed with the goal of doing what we reasonably can to protect your privacy, so you can participate only to the extent you wish. You can also contact me privately by email or snail mail, even anonymously, if you prefer, but the real power is in the open contributions from everyone.

I want to thank UNIX historian Peter Salus for agreeing to contribute his knowledge and skills to the Grokline Project as technical and historical advisor and Frank Sorenson, who has agreed to take on the daunting task of managing the chart revision. I am deeply indebted to MathFox for his coding mastery, and to John Crowley for the design of the Grokline site, and to Alan Canon, Frank, and John for helping MathFox prepare the site for launch. I feel a little like a woman in a shoe store, endlessly asking for a slight change here and a little tweak there. They never once lost their temper or refused to implement what I asked for, and I view it as an honor and a privilege to know and work with such wonderful people.

There is no shortage of brains in the community or of skills. That is our strength, and if we work together, I believe we can make a significant contribution with Grokline. I am very glad you are here.


Copyright ©2004-2005 Pamela Jones.
Grokline is run and edited by Groklaw's PJ.

Click here to send an email to  the editor of this site.

Peter H. Salus serves as technical and historical adviser.
Frank Sorenson is technical manager of the Grokline chart.
Grokline Software by MathFox.
Design by John Crowley of Concinnitas.
Grokline is hosted and published by Ibiblio.