Vetting SCOs Linux Lawsuits

Evidence is mounting against SCO's claims.

In March, the SCO Group filed a $1 billion lawsuit (a claim thats since grown to $3 billion) against IBM, alleging that IBM violated its licensing agreements with SCO by leaking Unix-related trade secrets and source code to Linux developers.

At the time, SCO stressed that its actions were part of a dispute between two companies and not an attack on Linux or its users. Soon thereafter, however, SCO sent letters to 1,500 companies running Linux, notifying them of potential copyright liability.

SCO claims that it owns a huge chunk of the Linux code base, and it has threatened companies running Linux with lawsuits unless they purchase from SCO run-only licenses of $1,399 per processor for servers, $199 per system for desktop computers or $32 per system for embedded Linux devices.

SCO has yet to take action against any company running Linux, but it has announced that it is selecting targets for litigation.


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There is a laundry list of significant problems with SCOs claims, and eWEEK Labs recommends that companies not countenance SCOs demands. Before you buy a license for something, it makes sense to ask what it is youre paying for, and SCO has not done much to prove or even clearly delineate its claims.

For starters, SCO refuses to identify the code in question. SCO says that its Unix code is a trade secret and that it will show samples of the infringing code only to those willing to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

However, two such samples were recently leaked to the public after appearing as part of a presentation at the SCO Forum in Las Vegas, and the non-infringing lineage of both were promptly established by the open-source community. Bruce Perens, an open-source-code lobbyist, has posted an analysis of the samples at, in which he points out that both pieces of code had been released under the open-source BSD license.

Those two samples represent only a small portion of the code SCO holds to be infringing, but the origin of these samples casts doubt on SCOs allegations.

In any case, a much bigger problem for SCO in its quest to establish ownership of Linux is that it has distributed the code in question under the GNU GPL (General Public License)—in other words, it has given it away. SCO says it was not aware that its intellectual property was included in Linux when it distributed it, but there are reasons to question this.

SCO is claiming ownership of such a large portion of Linux that its difficult to imagine how the company could have marketed and developed Linux distributions for years without realizing that it was giving its property away. For example, SCO asserts that more than 829,000 lines of its proprietary symmetric multiprocessing code has been duplicated in Linux.

Most recently, SCO has taken to challenging the legality of the GPL, asserting that it is pre-empted by federal copyright law. Its an argument that Columbia Law School Professor Eben Moglen has characterized as frivolous and based on an interpretation of copyright law that would invalidate not only the GPL but many other proprietary software licenses as well.

SCO will have a chance to air its theories on federal copyright law and software licensing when its case against IBM (and IBMs countersuit) reaches the courts because IBM is placing the GPL issue at the center of its defense.

However, this showdown isnt expected until 2005. Unless Red Hats recently filed suit against SCO beats the IBM case to the courtroom, or some sort of settlement emerges, this matter will remain a question mark for the next few years.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at

Next page: Linuxs Legal Timeline.

Linux legal timeline

  • 1993 Novell Inc. acquires Unix Systems Labs, holder of Unix source code and patents for $322 million; Novell sells fully paid Unix license to Sun Microsystems Inc. for $81 million
  • Nov. 6, 1995 Novell sells UnixWare to SCO for 6.1 million shares of SCO stock
  • Jan. 26, 1996 Novell files 10-K annual report outlining sale of UnixWare and states that it will continue to receive revenue from existing licenses for older versions of Unix System source code
  • 2000 IBM pledges to spend $1 billion on Linux in 2001
  • March 6, 2003 Caldera/SCO announces the filing of a $1 billion lawsuit against IBM for alleged contract violation
  • May 12 SCO sends a letter telling large companies they face legal action if they use Linux code
  • May 16 Caldera officially proposes to shareholders name change to SCO Group Inc.
  • May 19 Reports emerge that Microsoft Corp. bought an SCO Unix license and rights to an undisclosed patent
  • May 28 Novell publicly challenges SCOs assertion that it owns the copyrights and patents to Unix System V
  • June 16 SCO terminates IBMs right to use or distribute IBMs Unix-based AIX operating system; SCO amends its lawsuit to ask for more than $3 billion from IBM
  • July 21 SCO claims Linux users are violating copyrights for its Unix System V source code
  • Aug. 4 Red Hat Inc. files suit against SCO, claiming itself innocent of Unix copyright violations
  • Aug. 6 SCO sets pricing for the SCO Intellectual Property License for Linux—$1,399 for single-CPU servers
  • Aug. 7 IBM countersues SCO
  • Aug. 13 SCO terminates the Unix System V contract for IBMs Sequent software

Source: eWEEK reporting