Unix, Licenses and the Law

SCO should seek revenue through competitive products, rather than through the court system.

A billion dollars for a few lines of code? On the surface, the lawsuit filed by SCO against IBM claiming violation of intellectual property rights is frivolous. Coming from a vendor that is struggling to turn a profit, it looks like a desperate attempt to earn money through the courts, rather than by delivering value to customers through competitive software products.

SCO claims that IBM has been donating to Linux some AIX code that was originally licensed from SCO. By claiming that IBM is misappropriating SCOs intellectual property, the lawsuit threatens to cast doubt on the legality of some code in Linux and the open-source movement in general.

The quest to reap license revenue from Unix is the latest in a tortuous 30-year history of Unix licensing. Once distributed virtually for free, Unix was the spiritual ancestor of Linux and the open-source software movement. So its highly ironic that the current owner of the Unix code should sue a licensee for an exorbitant sum.

The negative effects of the suit go beyond irony, however. The proceeding threatens to cast a pall over IBMs AIX implementation of Unix. Unless the question is settled, SCO is threatening to pull IBMs Unix license for AIX, creating the possibility that AIX users could be cut off from enhancements and upgrades. IBM executives say, however, the license is irrevocable.

With these dire prospects in mind, there could be some benefit to the suit if it forces vendors to look at what it is they are selling and to look at the guarantees, or lack of same, under which they sell it. We have previously decried in this space the abdication of vendor accountability stipulated in most software licenses.

Shrink-wrap agreements must be more than a litany of loopholes. They should give users certain guarantees of suitability, one of which should be that the vendor has the right to license the code to the user in the first place.

If IBM is playing fast and loose with licensed code, a nominal payment—not $1 billion—to SCO would be in order. But SCO, having made its point, should get back to the job of developing code that helps IT shops deliver value and should stop looking to the court system as a profit center.