The Scene is Set
Years ago The Santa Cruz Operation, now called SCO,
was the belle of the ball. SCO was the owner of an enviable body
of Unix know-how and was one of the few independent Unix companies
left standing after the Microsoft juggernaut had finished. By the
late 90s, SCO was no longer the player it once was, but was in business.
It was winning customers, servicing accounts and making money.
Along came Linux, and suddenly Unix was cool again. People were
using it. Business were using it. Buckets of investment money were
being dumped on anything even tangentially related to it. Companies
headed by twenty-something computer engineers were trying to bring
Linux to the enterprise market, but didn't know where to start.
The question on everyone's mind was how these new companies could
demonstrate enough stability and know-how to crack the lucrative
Many eyes fell on SCO with their decades of experience, impressive
client list and the real-word ability to make money selling and
servicing enterprise Unix. SCO suddenly became a beautiful debutante
besieged with with suiters. Granted, she had not yet fully embraced
Linux, but she was unquestionably a catch. Rumors flew regarding
impending acquisitions by RedHat, IBM or other major Linux players.
But it didn't happen. Perhaps SCO valued herself too dearly, perhaps
she simply waited too long, perhaps there were cultural issues that
prevented these deals from going through. We'll never know exactly
why, but SCO never found her perfect match, and in 2001 what was
left of SCO's Unix operation was purchased by Caldera, a struggling
second-tier Linux distributor who took SCO's name after the deal.
SCO's market share continued to slip, and in 2002 she teamed up
with other Linux vendors to release a unified version of Linux.
An announcement in March, however, confirmed that SCO had completed
her descent into insanity.
I don't want realism.
I want magic!
SCO claimed that IBM had stolen key components of
SCO's proprietary UNIX operating system and placed them into the
Linux kernel, thus making them available to everyone for free. SCO
claims that this has resulted in irreparable damages and is now
suing IBM for over one billion dollars.
This is one of the largest and strangest intellectual property
claims in history. IBM has been a long-time SCO customer, and such
disputes are usually resolved through negotiations. SCO however,
not only shows no interest in negotiating, but is refusing to tell
IBM or anyone else exactly what code was allegedly misappropriated.
Chris Sontag, a SCO senior vice president has promised that in
June they will show SCO-selected "independent experts, under
a non-disclosure agreement, the evidence behind SCO's allegations,"
but the people who are supposedly responsible and the general public
will be kept in the dark until the court hearings.
The biggest problem with SCO's claims, however, is that SCO themselves
have already released the Linux kernel in question under the GPL
license. According to SCO's court filing "Any software licensed
under the GPL (including Linux) must, by its terms, not be held
proprietary or confidential, and may not be claimed by any party
as a trade secret or copyright property." Years ago when SCO
published their own Linux distribution under the GPL, they formally
renounced all claims to the intellectual property.
SCO recently announced that it will no longer be shipping Linux
or participating further in Linux development, but the company cannot
simply take back the intellectual property that it already released
into the public domain.
The Kindness of Strangers
SCO's actions can most charitably be described as
a desperate cry for help. SCO's days as force in the Linux market
or a provider of integration services are numbered, and the entire
industry knows it. The decision to focus on licensing their intellectual
property is rational under such circumstances, but basing a business
on extorting your clients is not. Ironically, the only reason SCO
can sue IBM is that IBM was a SCO customer and thus had access to
If this were a legitimate intellectual property dispute, IBM would
crush SCO. IBM has been developing operating systems since the 50s,
and they sit atop a mountain of patents. IBM's lawyers could undoubtedly
find dozens of ways that SCO is infringing on IBM intellectual property.
But of course, SCO probably won't be in business long enough to
Up in Redmond, Bill Gates in dancing a jig over the fear and doubt
these shenanigans are causing in the Linux market. Last month Microsoft
announced that they had agreed to a licensing arrangement with SCO
in order to "respect their intellectual property." Both
the terms and the amount of the agreement are being kept secret.
However, the agreement most certainly contains language to protect
Microsoft from the kind of attack IBM is currently under, and considering
the PR value of the arrangement, the license payments should probably
be coming out of the marketing budget.
Having made so little headway, SCO recently escalated its attack.
Last month, SCO sent letters to 1,500 corporations informing them
they they might be in violation of the law if they are using Linux.
But perhaps the biggest surprise in this legal posturing has been
the viciousness with which SCO has turned on the Linux community.
For example, SCO's website features horribly out-of-context quotes
from leading open soruce proponents making it sound as though they
advocate outright theft and disdain the whole concept of intellectual
Perhaps if SCO keeps causing more and more disruption and damage
in the Linux market, someone will find it more cost effective to
just acquire them; effectively paying them to go away. So far, this
is not happening. Suing IBM was not enough. Threatening to sue companies
using Linux was not enough. Disparaging the Linux development community
of which they used to be a part was not enough. There are now rumors
that SCO plans to sue other Linux distributors, but I doubt that
will change the landscape much. The Linux market is now mustering
forces against SCO. Injunctions are being filed and Novell now claims
that it, not SCO, owns the copyrights in question.
Neither corporate Linux users nor the Linux industry seems to be
taking SCO's legal threats seriously, and how can SCO expect them
to? SCO formally placed its Linux-related intellectual property
in the public domain when it released its own version of Linux under
the GNU license years ago, and SCO continued to distribute Linux
even after filing the lawsuit against IBM. No amount of legal posturing
and fist-shaking belligerence will change that now.