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SCO Debacle

May 17, 2003

If you haven”t been following the SCO (rhymes with go) and IBM debacle, well, then you are probably a normal person. However, if you”re like me, then you may feel a little twinge of fear at the prospects that the open-source community is currently faced with. For those of you who haven”t been following the situation, here is how I understand it:

A long time ago AT&T created an operating system named Unix — some of you may have heard of it. For many reasons, most of which I can”t understand and/or find boring, they decided to sell the rights to Unix to Novell who essentially let it sit around like the relic that it is and rake in the adoration like a kid with the newest Yu-Gi-Oh card. Eventually, the rights to Unix wound up in the hands of Caldera (who at one time had the best Linux distro IMO). Caldera, like Novell before it mainly collected meager license fees from Unix users and enjoyed the adoration of the industry for holding the rights to the software equivalent of a Monet masterpiece (outdated, yet beautiful). At some point Caldera bought a few products from a company named SCO (Santa Cruz somethingorother); namely OpenServer and UnixWare and soon after changed their name to SCO (because the bulk of their profits came from the old-SCO products).

Fast-forward to the year 2003 — SCO is now a struggling company barely able to keep its head above water. Its stock holders are freaking out because the stock is worth next to nothing and the company is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy… all hope is seemingly lost. However, there appears to be someone with a brain still at the helm because he or she figures out that the company may have a case (or at least the illusion of one) against IBM for IP fraud. Let”s go back a little bit and explain the reasoning behind this. For a long time Linux was a bit player in the computer industry. Even the most successful firms selling Linux (RedHat, Mandrake, etc…) were barely blips on the radar screen. However, one day a real big fish named IBM decided to throw their hat into the proverbial Linux ring in order to compete with firms such as Sun and Microsoft (some of you may have heard of them) in the total-solution enterprise server arena. That is, Microsoft had and the Windows 2000 server coupling as their offering, and Sun had the Fire slash Solaris pair, while IBM had nothing of consequence on either side. However, IBM being IBM, the hardware solution was just a matter of throwing some money at the problem as well as repackaging some of its own components into a nice solution. Sadly, the software side of the solution wasn”t quite as easy — but they soon found out that it was actually much easier than they could have imagined. IBM, like the good little company that they were decided to throw some money into the Linux open-source community in order to develop some interesting features that they could then use to package with their enterprise solutions. Everyone in the Linux community immediately took notice (for better or for worse, but the undeniable fact is that IBM brought a lot of legitimacy to Linux), including SCO — who saw IBM as a big blue shiny target.

OK. As we left off, SCO was one CF of a company that needed to do something, and fast, to stay afloat. Knowing that there was this big beach ball named IBM out there, they took aim in a last ditch effort for survival and pulled the IP infringement lawsuit card and hit a homerun. To elaborate, SCO claimed that Linux (and therefore IBM) contained code that originated as Unix (which if you remember, they own the rights to) and therefore breaks trade-secret laws. If you know anything about Linux, then you may be asking yourself, “how can this be so, wasn”t Linux built from scratch” The answer is, pretty-much. Linux is based very loosely on Minix (mostly as a what-not-to-do style of motivational force), which in turn was built from scratch by Andrew S. Tanenbaum. Therefore, it will be very difficult for SCO to make their case if any trial occurs.

So there we have it; a fairly accurate description of the SCO / IBM debacle. Amazingly, the waters of this soap opera appear to be getting murkier by the day as the sewage of a company on the brink of self-destruction washes up onto the pristine beaches of the open-source community. When news of the filing of the suit against IBM, SCO stock took a sharp rise making it (for once) worth more than pennies. Stock holders must have been happy about this development because it meant that the chances were very high that IBM, or perhaps another Linux company would be compelled to buy SCO, thus making the stockholders a nice chunk of change when such a prospect seemed bleak just a few weeks prior. Could this have been the motivation for this entire debacle SCO likes to claim that they are only standing up for their rights as IP holders, which taken in a vacuum is admirable — especially when it”s looks like a classic David vs. Goliath scenario. However, some recent developments have tarnished there puritanical stance.. First, SCO happens to sell a version of Linux. In fact, as Caldera, Linux was the foundation product that the company sold. My question naturally is this; if SCO was worried about Linux violating its IP, then why did it develop its own version of it and release it under the GPL Wouldn”t this imply that they were in turn releasing their coveted intellectual property under a license that claims that they have no ownership under said property? Second, SCO recently released a statement claiming that not only would IBM and other distributors be held accountable for misappropriation of trade secrets, but the end-users of Linux would also be swimming in dangerous waters. If this isn”t a shakedown then I have no idea what is. This particular action reeks of Kenneth Lay/Dennis Kozlowski-esque tactics. By releasing such garbage threatening the users of Linux with legal ramifications, SCO is causing a huge stink which may force the hand of someone like Suse or Redhat to buy them up quickly before customers start dropping them in fear of being sued for using their products. Third, Linux being open-source has its source code available free of charge for all eyes to view. If the IP of SCO was indeed present in the software, shouldn’t they have noticed before now Caldera/SCO was founded in 1994 by Ransom Love and Bryan Sparks… shouldn’t they have noticed that Unix code was embedded within Linux by now — 9 years later Of course, SCO would like to claim that the Unix portions of the code have intentionally been obfuscated and therefore undetectable before now. I find that hard to believe.

The SCO/IBM suit is an interesting chapter in the history of Linux, and indeed one of the more frightening, not because of the apparent shakedown that is going on, but due to the possibility (remote as it seems presently) that SCO may just be correct. The ideal situation where SCO looses its case in court is surrounded by many horrible counter-possibilities. In fact the ideal situation may be the ONLY outcome that benefits both Linux users and sellers. I”m going to keep an eye on it closely, and I hope that you will too.<br/> -m

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