Vetting SCOs Linux Lawsuits

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2003-09-01 Print this article Print

Evidence is mounting against SCO's claims.

In March, the SCO Group filed a $1 billion lawsuit (a claim thats since grown to $3 billion) against IBM, alleging that IBM violated its licensing agreements with SCO by leaking Unix-related trade secrets and source code to Linux developers.

At the time, SCO stressed that its actions were part of a dispute between two companies and not an attack on Linux or its users. Soon thereafter, however, SCO sent letters to 1,500 companies running Linux, notifying them of potential copyright liability.

SCO claims that it owns a huge chunk of the Linux code base, and it has threatened companies running Linux with lawsuits unless they purchase from SCO run-only licenses of $1,399 per processor for servers, $199 per system for desktop computers or $32 per system for embedded Linux devices.

SCO has yet to take action against any company running Linux, but it has announced that it is selecting targets for litigation.

Is SCO smoking crack? Read eWEEKs hard-hitting interview with Linux creator Linus Torvalds. There is a laundry list of significant problems with SCOs claims, and eWEEK Labs recommends that companies not countenance SCOs demands. Before you buy a license for something, it makes sense to ask what it is youre paying for, and SCO has not done much to prove or even clearly delineate its claims.

For starters, SCO refuses to identify the code in question. SCO says that its Unix code is a trade secret and that it will show samples of the infringing code only to those willing to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

However, two such samples were recently leaked to the public after appearing as part of a presentation at the SCO Forum in Las Vegas, and the non-infringing lineage of both were promptly established by the open-source community. Bruce Perens, an open-source-code lobbyist, has posted an analysis of the samples at, in which he points out that both pieces of code had been released under the open-source BSD license.

Those two samples represent only a small portion of the code SCO holds to be infringing, but the origin of these samples casts doubt on SCOs allegations.

In any case, a much bigger problem for SCO in its quest to establish ownership of Linux is that it has distributed the code in question under the GNU GPL (General Public License)—in other words, it has given it away. SCO says it was not aware that its intellectual property was included in Linux when it distributed it, but there are reasons to question this.

SCO is claiming ownership of such a large portion of Linux that its difficult to imagine how the company could have marketed and developed Linux distributions for years without realizing that it was giving its property away. For example, SCO asserts that more than 829,000 lines of its proprietary symmetric multiprocessing code has been duplicated in Linux.

Most recently, SCO has taken to challenging the legality of the GPL, asserting that it is pre-empted by federal copyright law. Its an argument that Columbia Law School Professor Eben Moglen has characterized as frivolous and based on an interpretation of copyright law that would invalidate not only the GPL but many other proprietary software licenses as well.

SCO will have a chance to air its theories on federal copyright law and software licensing when its case against IBM (and IBMs countersuit) reaches the courts because IBM is placing the GPL issue at the center of its defense.

However, this showdown isnt expected until 2005. Unless Red Hats recently filed suit against SCO beats the IBM case to the courtroom, or some sort of settlement emerges, this matter will remain a question mark for the next few years.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at

Next page: Linuxs Legal Timeline.