Linux Goes Legit

This may come as a surprise, but Microsoft has found itself to be a popular draw at the annual LinuxWorld Conference, the most recent version of which was held last week in San Francisco. And it's not just the tomato-toting crowd that wants a clear shot at whichever Microsoft executives are brave enough to show up at the open-source movement's most high-profile event of the year. As Linux has become more and more accepted by businesses of all sizes, these businesses have called on both Microsoft and various open-source vendors to make their products interoperate better. To their credit, both camps have been quite pragmatic in this regard, and the religious zealotry that once defined Linux has been relegated to an uninteresting and unpopular corner. Good riddance.

But not all of the biggest Linux news this month came out of LinuxWorld. Late last week, a federal district court judge in Utah issued a stinging ruling that hopefully ends the legal drama that's been surrounding UNIX since 2003. That's when The SCO Group filed a bizarre $1 billion lawsuit against IBM, charging that the software maker had copied code from UNIX into the freely available Linux OS. SCO claimed that it was the UNIX copyright holder, and thus was due royalties on all Linux instances that were subsequently sold or used with the offending code.

There's just one problem: Novell owns the UNIX copyright, and it immediately challenged SCO's ownership claims. The two companies entered into a four-year-long legal battle that finally ended last Friday. The result is that Novell, a noted Linux supporter, and not SCO, was found to indeed own the UNIX copyrights in question.

There are many ramifications of this ruling. First, SCO's suit against IBM will most certainly be thrown out, since SCO doesn't own the copyrights that are necessary for IBM to have infringed on them. Second, companies such as Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, which actually did pay licensing fees to SCO to avoid similar lawsuits, have found themselves on the wrong side of the debate, and SCO will likely have to pay portions of those fees to Novell, the rightful copyright holder. SCO, most likely, will simply disappear, its finances in tatters.

But the big news here is that the uncertainty over Linux is no more. Linux is now legally legitimate and free from the worrisome cloud of legal exposure that existed for the previous four years. Suddenly, using Linux isn't troublesome anymore, at least from a legal standpoint. And all that Microsoft language over the past few years about indemnification and so forth suddenly sounds a bit trite, unless you're still worried that Microsoft will unleash a patent attack on the open-source community.

That possibility is unlikely. Microsoft, as noted previously, has been directed by its largest customers to work with Linux and open source, and it has done so in many ways. Clearly, we're entering a new era here, one in which Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) from both camps will hopefully take a back seat to more diplomatic and efficient efforts.

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