Open source has given rise to open warfare. When, on March 7, The SCO Group filed a lawsuit against IBM regarding the present and future intellectual property rights to Unix and—more important—to Linux, you could almost hear the keyboard clicks as open-source advocates leveled their e-mail artillery at the SCO camp.
The lawsuit has all the elements of good drama: a company asserting intellectual property rights, detractors claiming the suit is nothing more than a financial ploy, and industry megastars IBM and Microsoft adding marquee value. In the middle stand customers, potential corporate users of Linux who are now uncertain whether that choice, despite technical and economic appeal, might place their companys systems on shaky legal ground.
In a series of e-mail questions and responses regarding the lawsuit, the customers I contacted expressed two strong opinions on the suit. The first is that the increasingly contorted legal wrangling has not stopped them from considering and developing Linux and related open-source applications, but it has stopped them from deployment until the lawsuit smoke clears a bit. The second opinion is a weariness and wariness that vendors have resorted to the courts.
You can read the early history of Unix at www.bell-labs.com/history/unix, but, suffice it to say, the program, like all great software, was developed without any master plan but was sufficiently flexible to evolve into a great operating system. The ownership of the intellectual property is a convoluted story of an orphans wandering through the high-tech world. You can see The SCO Groups chronology of the Dickensian saga at www.sco.com/scosource/unixtree/unixhistory01.html and get an idea of why the suit is so complex and draws in so many other vendors. The chart at the Web site strains the capabilities of the strongest diagramming software. At the heart of the suit is the claim that SCO holds the intellectual property rights to Unix—although that is disputed—and has been harmed because IBM is alleged to have undermined the value of Unix in the enterprise by developing and promoting Linux.
SCOs detractors are most vociferously led by the open-source advocates who see the lawsuit as nothing more than a ploy to extract cash from IBMs deep pockets. The detractors also see the shadow of Microsoft, which was quick to buy Unix rights from SCO.
Meanwhile, back in the middle are customers. “IT professionals understand the need to protect intellectual property. We also understand that large corporations sue each other to create bargaining positions that allow the opportunity to cross-license each others patents,” said Gary Gunnerson, IT architect for the Gannett Company and a member of the eWEEK Corporate Partner advisory board.
“We have considered deploying Linux on a limited basis, but at this point, we are only testing. We may hold off on deployment until I see the outcome of the dispute, to understand the potential licensing ramifications,” said another Corporate Partner, Michael Skaff, manager of IT systems for AdSpace Networks, in an e-mail exchange.
A deployment pause is not what the Linux community would like but is probably what it will get as the court system deals with the case. Despite all the blog postings and e-mail exchanges, it is worth remembering that the courts deal in facts that are allowed by a judge and heard by a jury. The motives behind a lawsuit mean little compared with what a court allows as evidence. Advocating that IT should go ahead with deployments before the courts resolve the ownership and intellectual property issues is foolhardy.
“The bottom line is there are many more bigger issues for the CIO to worry about that have real threats to the business, including security, budget and people issues. These back-room legal squabbles arent worth worrying about. When and if a settlement comes, just add that on to the price of the product, and life goes on,” said Fran Rabuck, president of Rabuck Associates and a Corporate Partner.
“Im not interested in commenting on this, as it is so much like a game of corporate twister that I cant recognize the characters,” stated another advisory board member, who requested anonymity. His visual of the corporate twister game is the most accurate depiction of the lawsuit that Ive seen.