Skip navigation

The SCO UNIX Lawsuit--Will It Affect Your Business?

Most Windows-based enterprises are likely well versed in the Linux debate in which Linux supporters argue that their favorite OS is more secure and less expensive than Windows because it's created largely by volunteers, is developed in the open and available for source-code examination, and is free to license. But many companies I've spoken to are less susceptible to the religious dogma behind Linux and take a more practical approach to implementing the open-source solution, as they do with any other technology. That is, most mid- and large-sized businesses are heterogeneous, implementing technology where it makes the most sense, which today, often means small and midsized Web sites, file servers, and in some cases even 3-D graphics-rendering farms. Linux has proven to be a fairly versatile and inexpensive alternative to Windows server products, even when you factor in the cost of supporting a UNIX-like environment. Over the years, I've found the steady improvements to Linux to be somewhat hard to swallow.
Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks that way. UNIX patent, copyright, and intellectual property owner SCO Group recently sued IBM, the largest Linux licensee, for $1 billion, charging the computer giant with stealing copyrighted UNIX code and using it in Linux. Furthermore, SCO charges that any company using Linux faces legal action over intellectual property rights because of the fact that crackers have stolen entire sections of UNIX code and placed that code in Linux. The legal battle, which Linux backers initially greeted with somewhat childish dissent, is starting to heat up. And if IBM doesn't respond adequately this week, SCO says it will cancel IBM's UNIX license, a legal bomb that could force IBM to stop selling its UNIX-based AIX software.
SCO's claims aren't without merit. After a weak rebuttal over the status of UNIX's copyrights from former UNIX owner Novell earlier this month, SCO produced documents that prove SCO has "all rights to UNIX ... technology, including the copyrights," an assertion Novell ultimately supported. However, Novell still maintains it owns certain patents related to UNIX, a fact that's unlikely to inhibit SCO from suing every Linux-using company on the planet. The problem, of course, comes down to the source code.
According to SCO, you can compare the UNIX System V and Linux source code to see where Linux is stealing wholeheartedly from UNIX. To make this comparison, however, you have to sign an egregious nondisclosure agreement (NDA), which prevents you from discussing details of the charges. This NDA is causing many members of the press to decline the invitation. Laura Dido of the Yankee Group signed the NDA, and she says the evidence is damning, with entire sections of source code, including original developer documentary notes, lifted wholesale from the UNIX System V source code. Based on this evidence, she recommended that companies with AIX contracts contact IBM immediately for advice. A wider concern is whether this development will forever taint or curtail adoption of the open-source phenomenon.
As with Microsoft's sudden domination of the Web browser market, critics have looked at Linux's sharp adoption and technical improvement rates with some distrust. How can an OS without any true central management or development strategy so quickly grow to rival and even eclipse the decades-old UNIX? Well, theft is one obvious way. As a hypothetical argument, let's say Linux's original threading code prevented it from scaling past a certain point. One way to improve that limitation would be to steal code from a similar OS--UNIX--that had already solved the scaling problem. But the question remains: Who stole the UNIX code?
This question might ultimately be answered in court, and although SCO has been silent about various details surrounding its claims, the company has said that it doesn't believe IBM is directly responsible for the theft. But what was once a curious, if nervously humorous lawsuit, is suddenly gaining steam. If SCO can revoke IBM's AIX license and prove that IBM used UNIX code in Linux, a wholesale attack on Linux companies could be next. And few of these companies are backed by the kind of legal resources IBM commands. If IBM falls, these other companies are in trouble.
The situation also has a couple of wild cards, as you might expect. The first is Microsoft, which recently made a huge media event out of licensing the UNIX code from SCO and recommending that other companies do the same. At the time, Microsoft said it was licensing the source code to provide better interoperability between UNIX and its products (notably Windows Services for UNIX--SFU). But where Microsoft goes, charges of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) follow. The Linux community immediately cried foul at the Microsoft media event, charging that the software giant was trying to throw another wrench into the cogs of Linux's progress. Microsoft, however, said that although Linux is indeed a threat, it has yet to feel the pinch from Linux, which the company says has stolen market share from UNIX not Windows.
Second, SCO is clearly using litigation as a revenue stream. The company doesn't have a balanced portfolio of products and services, and it doesn't take a financial genius to realize that someone at the company eventually decided that its only valuable asset was its ownership of the slowly fading UNIX. If SCO's suit against IBM is successful--meaning, the company makes oodles of money in an out-of-court settlement or by ultimately winning the case--we can expect SCO to move on down the UNIX and Linux food chains, suing companies that work on or use these technologies. The ramifications are staggering.
Is this legal threat something companies implementing AIX or Linux need to worry about, or will the SCO lawsuit disappear behind smoke and mirrors? Let me know what you think, and whether you believe your company--or the wider AIX and Linux communities--have anything to fear from SCO.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.