October 11, 2003

IBM vs. SCO, by analogy

I just read an article in the Australian Financial Review titled "Big
Blue files counterclaims against SCO over Linux,"
by William
Bulkeley of the Wall St. Journal. It is an attempt to explain the
current actions of IBM against SCO in regard to Linux. The second
paragraph says:

The new counterclaim charges that SCO infringed IBM's copyrights by
distributing IBM's contributions to Linux after SCO had violated
its Linux licence by claiming a copyright on parts of Linux
[emphasis added]

This "explanation" of the GNU
General Public License
governing Linux is so wrong-headed that I
felt compelled to try to explain it better. I wanted to come up with
an analogy explaining Linux that everyone might understand. Mind you,
I Am Not A Lawyer; this is a layman's interpretation.

In the US there is such a thing as a copyright on a collection.
Authors keep the copyrights to their individual contributions, while
the editor of the collection gets the copyright on the collection. So
for SCO to claim a copyright on parts of Linux is perfectly
legitimate, if SCO did originally create that part of Linux.

Let's say a book editor by the name of Linus Torvalds decides to put
together a collection of short stories. He kicks things off by
writing the first story in his collection himself, but he wants other
writers to add their stories to his collection, so he issues his
initial one-story "collection" under a license that says
anyone can add their story to the collection, but if they do so, they
have to agree to a few terms. These terms include: (1) that adding a
short story to the collection does not give the author the right to
refuse others the authority to add their own short stories; (2)
authors cannot charge readers for the content of the short stories,
only for the reproductions (cost of paper, ink, etc., to print out the
collection) or services (if readers complain about typos or want their
own stories added but don't know how to do it, anyone can charge for
editing services); and (3) in order to make it easy to add new stories
and edit out errors in existing short stories, anyone distributing the
collection in printed form must also distribute the "source"
version of the collection, written in a desktop publishing
"markup" language, something like troff, SGML, TeX, or even
HTML. If an author believes his story is so good it should be
included in the "official" collection, he is encouraged to
submit it to the editor, who decides if it will be included in the
main collection. But if he just wants a personal version of the book
that includes his story, that's OK, too.

Writers start adding their stories to the collection. Readers start
enjoying the collection. Soon corporate publishers, like IBM, Caldera,
and SGI, start adding stories too.

But suddenly one author, whose initials are SCO, says to the world,
"Hey, there's a short story of ours in this collection and we didn't
put it there; also we're not getting paid for it; so we've decided
that we're going to charge all readers for the entire collection of
short stories, so we can make money on this deal." IBM replies,
"Wait a minute! If it's yours and you didn't put it there, tell
us which one it is and it'll get taken out. But you can't charge
readers for the entire collection of short stories! You don't have
permission to charge readers for our story; nor, for that
matter, for the stories submitted by all the other writers in the
collection." To which SCO says, "We don't care about that.
Our story is the best in the collection. That gives us the right to
charge for the whole collection. And, by the way, we also don't like
the 'markup' source version being distributed, since that makes it
easy for other people with printers to print out copies of the
collection, and they shouldn't do that without paying us. We intend to
put a stop to all this." And there it now stands.

I hope this analogy makes it clear, at least to an extent, what is
wrong with SCO's claims. If SCO feels that its story is included in
the collection without permission it should work to remove its story,
but it cannot try to claim ownership of nor charge for the entire
collection just because it thinks its story is the best one in the
collection. This would amount to stealing the copyrights of all the
other writers, as well as the editor's copyright over the collection
as a whole.

David Sanford is an independent software developer.

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