Suns Unix-License Paradox

Sun's McNealy can't have it both ways with Linux.

"Theres no free lunch here," said Sun CEO Scott McNealy on the SCO-versus-Linux controversy. McNealys absolutely right but probably not in the way he thinks. In a recent interview with eWEEK Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist, McNealy compared the Linux community to Napsters MP3 swashbucklers and referred darkly to the copyright liability dangers of opting for the open-source "lifestyle."

Yet even as the Sun chief scattered seeds of fear, uncertainty and doubt over Linux and open source, he and his company are adjusting their bibs and sidling up to the free software buffet.

McNealys eye-opening remarks should leave enterprises wondering just where Sun stands when it comes to Linux, since the companys desktop and x86 server strategies have until now depended heavily on that embattled OS—in particular, on the version prepared and distributed by Red Hat.

Yet in the interview, it was Red Hat that McNealy singled out for failing to indemnify customers from a potential SCO shakedown. Sun is willing to protect its Solaris customers from these sorts of attacks, a protection its apparently unwilling to extend to customers to whom Sun has sold Red Hat Linux.

In his column last week, Lundquist discussed the possibility of Sun producing its own Linux distribution, which, according to McNealy, is something that Sun is considering. The idea is that such a Sun Linux distribution would sit protected under Suns broad Unix licensing umbrella, insulating users from SCO and giving Sun a virtual lock on Linux.


The trouble with this scenario is that, contrary to what McNealy told eWEEK, Sun does not "already own" Unix, no matter how many tens of millions Sun has spent on licensing fees. If you cant give it away, then you dont own it, and I seriously doubt that SCO would allow Sun to distribute Unix under the GPL.

You can do whatever you want with code licensed under the GPL, as long as you dont deny these same freedoms to those to whom you redistribute the code. If SCO were to bless a GPLd Sun Linux kernel, itd mean any recipient of Suns distribution could turn around and redistribute this code, completely sidestepping the SCO IP squabble.

And why cant Sun simply release its own Linux distribution under another license, perhaps a per-CPU, binary-only, not-for-redistribution one? To quote McNealy again, "Copyright matters."

Even if everything that SCO has alleged is provable and enforceable, the slice of intellectual property within the Linux kernel to which SCO has rights is a small portion of the total. Copyright does matter, and the copyrights of the myriad Linux kernel developers matter just as much as do those of SCO. The companies and individuals whove contributed to Linux have licensed their code in a particular way—under the GPL.

Sun is under no obligation to leverage the work of these many developers, but if the company chooses to do so, Sun must abide by the license under which these people have chosen to distribute the fruits of their labor.

Theres no free lunch here. Sun cant placate SCO and also respect the intellectual property rights of the Linux kernel developers. If theres to be a Sun Linux, then it will carry the same phantom taint as Red Hat Linux or SuSE Linux or SCOs own UnitedLinux offering.

Valid or not, SCOs audacious copyright claims constitute a real threat, and unless Sun plans completely to cut Linux from its road map, it is no more immune to this threat than any other firm that runs, develops for or distributes Linux.

McNealys remarks work to cast doubt on every open-source project—from the GNOME desktop environment that now ships with Solaris to Suns favorite Microsoft bludgeon, StarOffice.

If youre attending LinuxWorld in San Francisco this week, you might want to stroll over to the Sun booth and tell whos there that its time for McNealy and Sun to look beyond the cheap-shot opportunities at IBM and other rivals that this SCO silliness presents and stand up for its customers, partners and developers.

Peter Coffee is on vacation. eWEEK Labs Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be contacted at