When it announced it will indemnify its Linux users, Hewlett-Packard on Wednesday made an offer to The SCO Group that echoed the famous words of Clint Eastwoods "Dirty Harry": "Go ahead, make my day."
Oh, HP was more polite about it than Harry was to scumbags on the streets of San Francisco, but the message is clear: If you go after our Linux customers, we will fight you in the courts. We, not they, will supply the attorneys. And we will win the case.
In what looked like a canned release that it had stockpiled for this contingency, SCO said, "HPs actions ... reaffirm the fact that enterprise end users running Linux are exposed to legal risks."
Gosh, SCO, do you feel lucky? To quote Martin Fink, HPs vice president for Linux, "Thats certainly an interesting spin." To put it more bluntly: Get real, SCO. HP is saying that it thinks the legal risks are so small, its willing to assume them to make customers feel more secure.
HP looked at SCOs claims—all unproven, all unsupported by any publicly available evidence—and decided that it was to their competitive advantage to offer their Linux customers indemnification against SCOs legal threats.
At worst (HP apparently figures), SCO will sue its Linux customers; HP will get a court to bundle the cases together; and HP will win after a couple of years of litigation. And at the same time, HP will scoop up all the enterprise customers who have been on the fence about investing in Linux because of SCOs legal threats. At best, SCO shies away from taking on HPs formidable legal team, and HP still gets additional business. For HP, its a win-win situation.
HPs indemnification move may sound like a bold, "Dirty Harry" move; but I think HP actually looked over its Linux options and coolly decided on the best move for its bottom line and its customers.
Why havent other companies made this move? Well, it is bold in one way: HP is agreeing to indemnify third-party software. HP doesnt actually create, manage or even distribute Linux. Despite SCOs claims, this move doesnt reflect HP concerns about Linuxs legal standing; instead, it shows that HP is rock-certain that Linux, even though its not even HPs own product.
HPs indemnification comes with caveats, most of them minor. As of Oct. 1, buyers of HP equipment running a Linux distribution that they got through HP (primarily Red Hat or SuSE) are automatically covered as part of their support contracts. If youre already an HP Linux customer, you simply sign a no-charge, amended contract, and youre covered
So, for example, if youre running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1 on a rackmount ProLiant DL320, youre covered. If you buy a supported Linux via HP, you can slap it on an older HP server and that will be covered too. Even home users using the low end HP Compaq d220 to run the Mandrake 9.1 Light Linux distribution can be covered.
The one major exception: You cannot modify your Linux source code and still be covered. HPs Fink estimates that represents one in 10,000 customers (although that number sounds low to me).
You can upgrade your Linux with the latest patches, but you must get those patches from either HP or an HP-endorsed Linux distributor.
In short, you get a choice with your Linux: You can either have HP legal protection or you can have your GPL rights. Some developers and free software advocates will be concerned about this, but frankly, I cant think of many businesses that will give a hoot. Someone whos running Linux as their mission-critical Web server or back-end DBMS server is about as likely to want to modify the source code as Im interesting in trying to tune my engine while zooming along the interstate at 70 MPH. (Even Linus himself doesnt seem to have a problem with this.)
HP wants to be darn careful about what its covering, and I dont blame it a bit.
As far as Im concerned, software intellectual-property indemnification for end users is a red herring. Besides SCO, I dont know of any company that has ever gone after end users. In other IP cases, such as Eolas Technologies successful case over Microsoft, Eolas could pursue the SCO strategy and go after almost every Web browser user on the planet. But while Eolas realizes that alienating end users makes no real business sense, SCO apparently no longer cares about its reputation as a systems company; its moved into the IP litigation business with fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) as its weapon of choice.
HP has decided to fight SCOs FUD with smart marketing. It may not be as dramatic as Dirty Harrys .44 Magnum ("the most powerful handgun in the world"), but in promoting both Linux and HP to business users, it may turn out to be just as effective.
Linux & Open Source Center Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about Unix and Linux since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.