August 26, 2005

An open source ghost story

Author: Joe Barr

This story began as a review of g4l, a Norton Ghost-type utility for Linux. But that's not how it ended up. Instead it's a story of two open source ghosts: g4u and g4l. As ghost stories go, this one is more sad than scary: the tale of a bastard son refusing to recognize his lineage, and of the resulting bad feelings on both sides of the dispute. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning.Hubert Feyrer wrote g4u about six years ago. It's a NetBSD-based boot diskette similar in functionality to the popular Norton Ghost. G4u's name is shorthand for "Ghost for Unix."

Although Feyrer no longer has time to maintain the project -- he is now working on his Ph.D. dissertation -- it is still available for download on his Web site. I downloaded the CD ISO version and gave it try. It works just fine. I cloned a local partition on the same drive, after spending just a little time matching up the partitions as I knew them in Linux (hda1, hda2, hda3) with the names they are known by in BSD.

You can also clone entire drives, or backup to and restore from an FTP server. All in all, g4u is a very useful tool. Better yet, while it boots NetBSD, it can be used on drives and partitions containing all sorts of operating systems, from Windows, to OS/2, to Linux, to what-have-you.

The user interface is legacy command-line -- no pretty GUI, not even DOS- style colored menus. It's lean and mean, and it works. Feyrer licensed his gift to the world of free software using the BSD license, which requires nothing more than attribution of his work.

Years pass, g4l arrives

Early last year, Ghost for Linux appeared on freshmeat. The earliest versions of g4l bore a striking resemblance to g4u, but there was no attribution given Hubert Feyrer or g4u in the GPL-licensed Linux version.

The resemblance between the two projects was so striking that g4u's creator Hubert Feyrer felt compelled to perform a detailed analysis to demonstrate that g4l was based on g4u.

That analysis was apparently more than g4l's creator -- known only as nme -- could bear. He walked away from the project in a huff, saying of Feyrer that "He now wants to force me by law, to add his license and credits to the code I wrote. This is not acceptable for me, so I quit work on g4l. Because of certain people, programming isn't much fun anymore."

And quit he did, but the project did not die. This is an open source project, after all. A new maintainer named Frank Stephen stepped forward and took over.

It would have been a perfect time to heal the rift between g4u and g4l, but that was not to be. The new maintainer insisted -- against all the evidence -- that in his opinion, the original project had not been based on g4u. Besides, Stephen points out that (in his opinion) the project is so much different now than it was in the beginning that the whole issue is "old news."

Well-known Linux/free software advocate Rick Moen stepped up and wondered if Frank Stephen might just be nme behind a different name. Whether that is true or not, the two do share a certain aversion to giving Feyrer and g4u their due. Moen commented on the freshmeat project page:

I have no horse in this race, other than caring about the reputation for integrity of the Linux community, and it's extremely obvious to me that, your assertion notwithstanding, v0.12 blatantly copied Hubert Feyrer's work, illegally and dishonestly stripping his author credit. (Contrary to the assertions of some, fixing that wouldn't quite suffice, since G4L's GPL terms clash with Hubert's old-BSD licensing's advertising clause. G4L would have to include a license exception, to fix that additional glitch. Additionally, G4L would have to clarify that Hubert's terms, not GPL, apply to Hubert's work incorporated in G4L.)

An effort to heal the rift

Just when it looked as if there might not be a reasonable man within earshot of the g4l project, one stepped up. Michael Setzer II had made some modifications to g4l that he and other users needed. Since the project had an open upload policy at the time, he was able to make his version available to others. Both of the original authors, nme and Frank Stephen, eventually contacted Setzer, and gave him alone the ability to upload new releases to the project.

Probably the most important change Setzer has made was to finally give Hubert Feyrer and g4u some long overdue props. The opening screen for the current version of g4l now states:

Disclaimer concerning Copyright: Prior version(s) of g4l appear to have been based on G4U (Ghost for Unix) a NetBSD-based bootfloppy/CD-ROM by Hubert Feyrer ( Copyright (C) 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002,2004

The disclaimer continues with a history of the project, including its maintainers and releases since the beginning. You have to give Setzer credit -- he even included a link to Feyrer's code analysis page.

But although it is a big step forward, it's not what Feyrer would like to see. What he wants to see is for both licenses to be lived up to.

In response to an email query about the disclaimer he added to g4l, Setzer told me:

I was trying to come up with a compromise. At the time, I had no
contact with either of the g4l authors, and I did get a nice response
from the G4U author, but his reply basically said that he wanted
the original stuff put in, and still had never even looked at the later
code. Not being able to get resolution to the situation, I added the
disclaimer, and basically leave it up to the users to decide. If they
think there is an issue, don't use g4l. But I don't know enough on the
issue to make a complete judgment.

Tainted code

Given the resolute refusal of g4l's original authors to credit 4gu as their starting point, that's probably as good as it's going to get. Setzer cannot speak for either of them, so he can't do as Feyrer wants. Feyrer, on the other hand, doesn't have the time to go through the latest version of g4l code to see what's left that was copied from his work.

In the end I'm left with the feeling that something has been stolen -- something intangible. One of the greatest benefits that comes to the authors of free software is the feeling that they have done something worthwhile for the benefit of all, and the ego gratification of seeing others extend the work. To see your work taken by others and then claimed as their own steals both the joy and the gratification.

As Isaac Newton is reputed to have said some 430 years ago, and open source people are fond of repeating because it so aptly describes the process, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" -- a noble sentiment that, at least until Setzer appeared, was not a part of this tale. Its absence has left an indelible mark of shame on the project.


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