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Torvalds: Explicitly Documenting Patch Submission

May 24, 2004, 14:00 (4 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Linus Torvalds)

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This is a request for discussion..

Some of you may have heard of this crazy company called SCO (aka "Smoking Crack Organization") who seem to have a hard time believing that open source works better than their five engineers do. They've apparently made a couple of outlandish claims about where our source code comes from, including claiming to own code that was clearly written by me over a decade ago.

People have been pretty good (understatement of the year) at debunking those claims, but the fact is that part of that debunking involved searching kernel mailing list archives from 1992 etc. Not much fun.

For example, in the case of "ctype.h," what made it so clear that it was original work was the horrible bugs it contained originally, and since we obviously don't do bugs any more (right?), we should probably plan on having other ways to document the origin of the code.

So, to avoid these kinds of issues ten years from now, I'm suggesting that we put in more of a process to explicitly document not only where a patch comes from (which we do actually already document pretty well in the changelogs), but the path it came through.

Why the full path, and not just originator?

These days, most of the patches in the kernel don't actually get sent directly to me. That not just wouldn't scale, but the fact is, there's a lot of subsystems I have no clue about, and thus no way of judging how good the patch is. So I end up seeing mostly the maintainers of the subsystem, and when a bug happens, what I want to see is the maintainer name, not a random developer who I don't even know if he is active any more. So at least for me, the chain is actually mostly more important than the actual originator.

There is also another issue, namely the fact than when I (or anybody else, for that matter) get an emailed patch, the only thing I can see directly is the sender information, and that's the part I trust. When Andrew sends me a patch, I trust it because it comes from him--even if the original author may be somebody I don't know. So the path the patch came in through actually documents that chain of trust--we all tend to know the "next hop," but we do not necessarily have direct knowledge of the full chain.

So what I'm suggesting is that we start "signing off" on patches, to show the path it has come through, and to document that chain of trust. It also allows middle parties to edit the patch without somehow "losing" their names--quite often the patch that reaches the final kernel is not exactly the same as the original one, as it has gone through a few layers of people.

The plan is to make this very light-weight, and to fit in with how we already pass patches around--just add the sign-off to the end of the explanation part of the patch. That sign-off would be just a single line at the end (possibly after other peoples sign-offs), saying:

Signed-off-by: Random J Developer <<A HREF="">>

To keep the rules as simple as possible, and yet making it clear what it means to sign off on the patch, I've been discussing a "Developer's Certificate of Origin" with a random collection of other kernel developers (mainly subsystem maintainers). This would basically be what a developer (or a maintainer that passes through a patch) signs up for when he signs off, so that the downstream (upstream?) developers know that it's all ok:

Developer's Certificate of Origin 1.0

By making a contribution to this project, I certify that:

(a) The contribution was created in whole or in part by me and I have the right to submit it under the open source license indicated in the file; or

(b) The contribution is based upon previous work that, to the best of my knowledge, is covered under an appropriate open source license and I have the right under that license to submit that work with modifications, whether created in whole or in part by me, under the same open source license (unless I am permitted to submit under a different license), as indicated in the file; or

(c) The contribution was provided directly to me by some other person who certified (a), (b) or (c) and I have not modified it.

This basically allows people to sign off on other peoples patches, as long as they see that the previous entry in the chain has been signed off on. And at the same time it makes the "personal trust" explicit to people who don't necessarily understand how these things work.

The above also allows for companies that have "release criteria" to have the company "release person" sign off on a patch, so that a company can easily incorporate their own internal release procedures and see that all the patches have gone through the right channel. At the same time it is meant to not cause anybody to have to change how they work (ie there is no "extra paperwork" at any point).

Comments, improvements, ideas? And yes, I know about digital signatures etc, and that is not what this is about. This is not about proving authorship--it's about documenting the process. This does not replace or preclude things like PGP-signed emails, this is documenting how we work, so that we can show people who don't understand the open source process.


OSDL: OSDL to Support Enhancements to Linux Kernel Development Process

"The Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), a global consortium dedicated to accelerating the adoption of Linux in the enterprise, today announced its support for enhancements to the Linux kernel submission process to improve the accurate tracking of contributions to the kernel and ensure developers receive credit for their contributions. Linux creator Linus Torvalds and Linux 2.6 kernel maintainer Andrew Morton said they adopted the revised process after obtaining input and broad support from key kernel subsystem maintainers and others in the open source community.

"Under the enhanced kernel submission process, contributions to the Linux kernel may only be made by individuals who acknowledge their right to make the contribution under an appropriate open source license..."

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