RISCOS Ltd Might Take Legal Action Against RISC OS Open Ltd

And it seems as if another minor, barely-alive operating system will become encumbered by legal bickering between two small companies. The RISC OS scene, which is already a tangled and complicated mess of companies, version number teasing and incompatible versions, might be torn apart even further because RISCOS Ltd might take legal action trying to prevent RISC OS Open Ltd from releasing a RiscPC compatible ROM from the RISC OS 5 shared source project. Should you feel confused, you needn’t worry: so does everyone else.

Let me explain. Wait, let me rephrase that. Let me try to explain. There are two companies working on RISC OS. There’s RISCOS Ltd, who develops RISC OS 4 and 6 for RiscPC and A7000 machines, as well as for various emulators and later on the A9home. These are the guys who recently released the “virtually free” ROM image which you can use in an emulator to run RISC OS 4. RISCOS Ltd acquired the license to work on RISC OS in 1998 from Pace after the demise of Acorn.

The other company is Castle, who develops RISC OS 5 for their Iyonix range of computers. Castle bought the 32bit source code to RISC OS from Pace in 2002, and used that code to build RISC OS 5. I guess someone at Pace thought it was a pretty hilarious joke. Can’t blame him.

In any case, this has obviously disaster written all over it – there were a few back and forths between the two companies, which Drobe neatly sums up:

In 2003 Castle said it bought the OS “lock, stock and barrel” from Pace, however ROL continue to dispute the level of ownership Castle has of the OS, drawing attention to the wording of the buy-up announcement. However Castle maintain to date that it bought the OS from Pace and had instructed its own lawyers to double-check its legal position. A year later Castle and ROL briefly kissed and made up after Castle tried to stop ROL developing its stream of RISC OS soon after Castle announced its purchase of the OS.

Caste is also the company that initiated the shared source scheme, a sort-of open source thing (you may do whatever you want with the code, except sell it “as part of a hardware product”) where the source code to RISC OS 5 would become available to the public, a process guided by a new group called RISC OS Open Ltd, which also takes care of the development of the code. The problem is that RISC OS Open Ltd wants to release a ROM image built for RiscPC machines – exactly, the market RISCOS Ltd caters to. RISCOS Ltd is fine with RISC OS Open Ltd releasing ROMs for the Iyonix range – but it’s not happy with ROMs compatible with the RiscPC.

If you’re already lost, you might as well move on up to another news item, because it will only get worse from here. I’m not even going to attempt to explain what follows – I’ll let the experts over at Drobe do that for me:

ROL’s new strengthened stance on the OS ownership dispute appears to have come about after company director Aaron Timbrell reviewed the paperwork documenting ROL’s licence to develop and distribute RISC OS. This agreement was initially drawn up with E-14, a company formed during the break-up of Acorn that took on the intellectual property rights (IPR) to the technology that we know as RISC OS. This technology was subsequently snapped up by Pace to use in set-top boxes. ROL were, at the time, granted exclusive rights to continue working on RISC OS for the Acorn enthusiast market and from Acorn’s final sources it produced RISC OS 4. ROL say this early desktop-only remit was extended by Pace at a later date – paving the way for RISC OS 4 to be bundled with emulator VirtualRiscPC (which is incidentally published by Aaron Timbrell).

Having leafed through the licence agreement and various bits of correspondance and public postings, Aaron now believes RISC OS 5 is a derivative of the source code base that RISC OS 4 was born from. It is understood that some of ROL’s early changes to RISC OS had to be passed back to Pace, and ROL’s position appears, in part, to rest on whether or not these ROL-authored updates made their way into the code that Pace engineers eventually 32bitted and turned into RISC OS 5.

And having fulfilled various obligations set out in the original agreement with E-14 (such as the aforementioned requirement of ROL to share early source code changes with Pace), ROL can now safely declare itself owner of the OS source it picked up in 1998 and all subsequent updates to it, claims Aaron – who believes Castle’s RISC OS 5 also falls under this. Therefore, according to Aaron, ROL own RISC OS 5 and suitable licences must be obtained from ROL before anyone can produce a RISC OS-powered product that falls within ROL’s licence remit. Hence the latest objection to plans to release a free RiscPC-compatible ROM image buit from the RISC OS 5 sources by RISC OS Open using materials provided by Castle.

RISC OS Open Ltd’s response came from its boss, Steve Revill, who tells the community not to lose too much sleep over this one. “The IPR belongs to Castle Technology Ltd and ROOL [RISC OS Open Ltd] have released it under a shared source licence provided by Castle. If ROL [RISCOS Ltd] has any complaint they need to address it to Castle, not to ROOL.” As a second point, he added: “ROOL has no contractual relationship with ROL and are not party to any agreements between ROL and Castle. Accordingly, ROL has no legal basis whatsoever to take action against ROOL as they don’t own the IPR but merely license it from Castle.” Revill states that if RISCOS Ltd has any objections, they should take it to a court of law to settle the matter.

RISCOS Ltd has also stated they have offered a license to RISC OS Open Ltd, allowing the shared source initiative to continue unencumbered with what it is doing. And here you were, thinking the Amiga scene was a mess.

In all seriousness, this is a very sad thing to see. There aren’t that many truly alternative operating systems out there, especially not ones as exotic and eccentric as RISC OS 4/5/6/whatever. Seeing such an already small community fall prey to legal bickering and infighting just makes me cringe – the men and women in charge there need a serious beating with the cluestick: if you guys don’t start working together, harmonising the various different versions, moving towards a unified, single RISC OS, then you guys are done for.

It’s sad and pathetic at the same time.


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