May 15, 2003

SCO dumps Linux development, threatens Linux users

- by Lee Schlesinger -
The SCO Group is getting out of the Linux business and into the legal arena. That's the message the company is sending to customers with a letter this week. It said it is suspending its "Linux-related activities" while aggressively protecting its intellectual property rights in Unix. At the same time, SCO is implying it could sue anyone who uses Linux, saying "legal liability that may arise from the Linux development process may also rest with the end user."

How wrong-headed can one company's management be?

Two months ago SCO filed suit against IBM, charging the computing giant with "misusing and misappropriating SCO's proprietary software; inducing, encouraging, and enabling others to misuse and misappropriate SCO's proprietary software; and incorporating (and inducing, encouraging, and enabling others to incorporate) SCO's proprietary software into open source software offerings."

It's true that Unix owns the rights to Unix System V. Caldera, SCO's prior incarnation, acquired them from Novell in 1995, two years after that company had purchased them from AT&T, where Unix originated in the 1960s. And it's true that a company has to enforce those rights if it hopes to maintain a business advantage from them.

It's not clear, however, that IBM has done anything SCO accuses it of. Linux is a clone of Unix. That doesn't mean it uses the same source code. There's a long, clear history in business of companies reverse-engineering successful products. In this case, IBM is using the work of thousands of open source programmers -- all of whom are too numerous, and too poor, for SCO to hit with a billion-dollar lawsuit.

A judge will have to examine source code and listen to arguments about what constitutes misappropriation. If the court decides SCO is in the right, determining an appropriate penalty could take years. (Can you say "Microsoft antitrust"?)

In addition to its legal implications, the latest statement is a stinging attack on open source development itself. Consider:

Commercial software is built by carefully selected and screened teams of programmers working to build proprietary, secure software. This process is designed to monitor the security and ownership of intellectual property rights associated with the code.

By contrast, much of Linux has been built from contributions by numerous unrelated and unknown software developers, each contributing a small section of code. There is no mechanism inherent in the Linux development process to assure that intellectual property rights, confidentiality or security are protected. The Linux process does not prevent inclusion of code that has been stolen outright, or developed by improper use of proprietary methods and concepts.

SCO is correct that open source developers follow no corporate process designed to prevent theft of intellectual property. Instead, there's a stronger force at work -- pride. Open source developers have only their reputations on the line -- not their income, not their jobs. Pride in doing a job well, pride in not stealing work that rightfully belongs to others, does more to keep open source developers honest than any corporate policy ever could.

It's hard to identify what SCO ultimately hopes to accomplish. Many companies turn to lawsuits as a last-ditch attempt to find revenue after they realize they don't have any hope of maintaining their existence any other way. That may be the game SCO is playing. The company is increasingly unprofitable, though it is expected to announce a profitable quarter at the end of this month.

A Gartner analyst posits that the IBM lawsuit is a way to make SCO more tempting as a takeover candidate. That's unlikely though -- everyone in the open source community, which is far larger than the SCO customer base, now views anything associated with SCO with scorn. As for the likelihood of IBM buying the company to dispense with an annoyance -- fat chance.

SCO's annual shareholder meeting is Friday at the company's headquarters in Utah. It should be interesting to hear how the company handles questions about these moves it will surely get from press and customers alike.

SCO has little reason not to put its Linux business on hold. I suspect it has had a hard time selling any copies since it announced the IBM lawsuit. Current OpenServer and UnixWare customers should view this move as a wakeup call. As SCO Linux goes today, so will the other operating systems go tomorrow if long legal battle drains the company's coffers while customers stay away in disgust. Customers should investigate other options for server platforms now to be prepared for a possible transition later.

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