SCO Deserves Public Scolding

By Jason Brooks  |  Posted 2003-05-19

SCO Deserves Public Scolding

Last week, The SCO Group began contacting individual companies with the message that Linux infringes on SCOs copyrights, and that end users may by liable for these copyright violations, like so many music-trading Napster or KaaZa "pirates."

SCO has put a page on its Web site titled "Quotes from Linux Leaders," in which it employs out-of-context quotes from Richard Stallman and Bruce Perens to cast these gentlemen—and, by extension, the entire Linux community—as copyright-disregarding outlaws.

At this point, it seems unlikely that SCO can prevail in the suit its filed against IBM, and I doubt whether itll have success in any subsequent action directed at a Linux distributor such as Red Hat or SuSE—let alone against an individual business running Linux.

SCOs intellectual property argument smacks of either cluelessness or disingenuousness in the extreme. Either way, SCO customers have to be questioning the competency of their OS vendor.

First there was the codebase …

Most of SCOs claims are summed up in the complaint filed with a Utah district court in March, although the companys been adding little bits and pieces to its story through the press ever since. In a nutshell, SCOs story goes like this:

All Unixes trace back to a codebase first developed at AT&Ts Bell Labs in 1969, and SCO owns this codebase. SCO also owns the code for SCO/Unix, a version of Unix intended for Intels x86 processors—in the same way that Suns Solaris is a version of Unix intended for SPARC chips, and IBMs AIX is a version of Unix intended for the Power PC processor.

In the complaint, this serves as foreshadowing, casting Linux, which was first developed as a Unix replacement that would run on Intel hardware, as an SCO adversary from day one. SCOs lawyers worked to further dramatize the situation by claiming that SCO/Unix was the only Unix to run on Intel hardware.

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However, as Eric Raymond points out in his very good counterpoint to/evisceration of the SCO complaint, Sun and IBM both ported their Unix flavors to Intels 386 and marketed these ports. Sun still sells Solaris for x86.

Forget about that, though, because the key to understanding SCOs infringement claims is accepting that the only road to Unixness on Intel hardware runs through SCO. As the story goes, the only way for Linux to have become the viable enterprise contender that it is was for IBM and the hordes of copyright-disrespecting Linux developers to have lifted large chunks of SCO-owned code and dropped them, more or less whole, into Linux.

However, major Linux distributors such as Red Hat and SuSE employ personnel charged with seeking out and eliminating potential copyright infringements, and both of these vendors have stated that, as far as theyve been able to ascertain, theyre not shipping any illegal code. In any case, neither company is worried.

You may be wondering, "Wheres the proof, wheres the code?"

Im wondering this too, but although SCO claims that Linux is chock-full of dirty code from the kernel to the periphery, it refuses to make public even one example. SCO has, however, said that its planning on showing some offending examples to selected analysts, under a non-disclosure agreement, sometime in the next several weeks.

… then there was Caldera

This is a good place to mention that the company that now calls itself The SCO Group is actually Caldera, a Linux distributor that got its start in 1994, and that in 2001 purchased most of the intellectual property of the original SCO, including the Bell Labs Unix codebase and the code for SCO/Unix.

In 2002, Caldera "returned to the SCO brand," because it seemed better to be known as a relatively minor Unix player with a small but entrenched user base than an even more minor Linux player thatd already been eclipsed by the likes of Red Hat and SuSE.

I mention the fact that SCO is actually Caldera because it seems strange that, as a Linux distributor, Caldera was apparently unaware of the all the infringing SCO code that supposedly teems throughout the product it was selling. Even after Caldera took on the SCO mantle, it joined with SuSE, TurboLinux and Connectiva to produce a new enterprise distribution—UnitedLinux, which Caldera/SCO began shipping in January.

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Does Linux contain infringing SCO code? Without any evidence, theres no way to say for sure. However, if Linux does contain such offending code, the biggest victim of Caldera/SCOs cluelessness may turn out to be the company itself.

Caldera/SCO has shipped numerous Linux distributions, and it has done so under the GPL. As Caldera/SCO stated in Point 80 of its own complaint, "Any software licensed under the GPL (including Linux) must, by its terms, not be held proprietary or confidential, and may not be claimed by any party as a trade secret or copyright property."

Caldera/SCO last week stopped shipping its UnitedLinux offering, but anyone to whom its already distributed that code may now distribute it to others, per the GPL. The fact that Caldera/SCO has distributed Linux under a license that prevents it from claiming this code as a trade secret or copyright property should make it tough for the company to succeed in a case in which its claiming this code as a trade secret or copyright property. Wouldnt you agree?

I think that Caldera/SCOs campaign is an attempt to build momentum for its legal action against IBM by frightening firms into questioning their choice of Linux and, I suppose, prodding Linux-cheerleader IBM into a speedy settlement.

However, the only businesses with cause to be scared over their OS of choice are those running Caldera/SCO products such as OpenServer and UnixWare. Thats because an IBM buyout is the very best result to this conflict that Caldera/SCO could hope for, and IBMs not interested in taking on the care and feeding of a new set of old platforms.

To sum up: Linux users, fear not. Caldera/SCO customers, start looking over your migration options—your OS vendor may not be long for this world.

Read the Caldera/SCO complaint, read the Raymond position paper, then give me your take at

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