March 7, 2003

SCO sues IBM for billions

- By Eric S. Raymond -

I have been given a copy of an article, supposedly to run in the Wall Street
Journal tomorrow, which reports that Caldera Systems (which now does business
as the SCO group) has filed suit agaist IBM for multibillion-dollar damages
over supposed disclosure of SCO's intellectual property to what SCO calls
the "free software community".

IBM has been selling Unix systems since the early 1980s. SCO bought
the original Unix source-code tree and associated IPR from Novell in
1995. It is not, apparently, alleged that any of the infringing
techology was developed on SCO's watch. Rather, the theory of the
lawsuit is that "IBM made concentrated efforts to improperly destroy
the economic value of Unix, particularly Unix on Intel, to benefit
IBM's new Linux services business.". SCO claims that Linux wasn't a
viable competitor to SCO Unix until IBM started supporting Linux and
assigning its programmers to improving it, and that parts of the
licensed Unix have been shared with the Linux community.

The particular techologies at issue aren't specified in the story.
However, a rumor reached me last night that ELF, the file format for
Unix binary executables, is part of it. Supposedly SCO regards ELF
as a derivative of COFF, the old System V binary format invented by
AT&T in the dark and backward abysm of time.

The confusion of "economic value" with "SCO's ability to collect
profits on the terms it chooses" is, of course, fallacious. Unix has
far more economic value than it did in 1995, partly because the low
price of the open-source versions makes Unix more attractive to
users. Sadly, we can't count on the trial judge being economically

This move bespeaks an interesting combination of cleverness and
idiocy, probably one born of desperation. Suing IBM rather than one
or more Linux vendors is smart; they have deeper pockets and won't
look quite so sympathetic in court. It's idiotic on another level,
because IBM has more lawyers and a bigger patent portfolio than
anyone else.

It's also smart to accuse the "free-software" community. SCO knows as
well as Microsoft did in 2000 that the term "free software" is likely
to sound suspicious to anyone who is not already immersed in the
open-source community, and that talking as though all Linux developers
have a whiff of piracy or communism about them might well help their
case (a tactic the DVDCCA has also used in its persecution of Jon
Johansen). But it's also deeply stupid to piss off that community
like this, unless you think you're never going to have to hire
programmers again. SCO is behaving as though it thinks its IP
portfolio is the only asset it has left.

Despite their advantages, IBM needs and deserves our support. I am
not saying this primarily because they're a big, important ally
(though they are) but because what SCO is doing is ethically wrong and
legally dubious. Much of the economic value they allege IBM to have
destroyed was created and donated to AT&T by open-source hackers in
the 1970s and 1980s, long before we woke up and named ourselves either
as "free software" or "open source". Even if SCI's allegations that
it owns key pieces of Unix IP are valid, it's fair that we should have
access to today's descendant of that technology.

But even if you don't care about the ethics, make no mistake: this is
a strike at the heart of our community. Conceivably we could live
without IBM, but we can't live with the fear that any possible ally we
might have in the future would get sued by whatever gang of desperate
schlemiels holds the old paperwork from AT&T this week.

Please support IBM in fighting off this lawsuit. It's important for
the future.

[Editor's note: This article was sent to many publications. It is not exclusive to NewsForge. The opinions it contains belong solely to Mr. Raymond and may or may not be shared by NewsForge staff or OSDN management.]

There's also an active Slashdot discussion about this lawsuit that links to several other news stories about it.

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