Internaut: Linux isn't all black and white

Shawn P. McCarthy

The open-source Linux operating system will likely remain free for the foreseeable future, despite SCO Group's legal fight with IBM Corp.

IBM lined up early behind the Linux penguin. But, unlike the penguin, the legal issues aren't all black and white.

SCO has a long history in the Unix space. It claims it also owns substantial portions of the Linux OS and wants users to pay it a licensing fee. The company earlier this year sent letters to more than 1,000 large organizations warning them to check the origin of any open-source code they use for patent violations. See www.sco.com/scosource/gartner_warning.html.

Like many vendors, IBM has made its own Linux kernel modifications freely available to others, per the Gnu General Public License. SCO accuses IBM of adding Unix source code belonging to SCO to the Linux kernel.

Unix, which began its evolution way back in 1969 at AT&T Bell Labs, passed through various mergers and acquisitions to Novell Inc., Santa Cruz Operation Inc. and Caldera International Inc., which changed its name to SCO Group to reflect the legacy. SCO Group also ended up with some of the patents associated with Unix.

The ownership issue is clouded by the long history of free availability of Unix, or at least Unix-like, OSes. Many Unix modifications have been made by many individuals, corporations, universities and government agencies, and these enhancements were put into the public domain. SCO can't expect anyone to believe these investments and substantial time commitments over the past 30 years were just a prank.

The Free Software Foundation isn't buying SCO's argument. Comments about the legitimacy of free software in general prompted the foundation to issue a statement, at www.gnu.org/philosophy/sco-statement.html. Part of its argument is that the fight concerns only SCO and IBM and should not involve the rest of the Linux community. The idea of broader licensing is moot, the foundation said.

Another argument concerns documentation of SCO's claim. Countersuits by IBM and Red Hat Inc. could bring to light more details about exactly what was supposedly stolen. There's a gap between Unix and Unix-like, and that gap is definitely a gray area.

SCO was a Linux distributor until earlier this year. As a distributor, it agreed to abide by the General Public License, which says distributors accept the free nature of the Linux beast and cannot add licensing fees.

Asking for fees now would essentially violate that GPL. SCO can't have it both ways.

Postings on Unix message boards have speculated about SCO's motivation. A common remark is that SCO is looking to get acquired, and the suit makes the company financially attractive.

Maybe SCO does have a right to license its code, and this strategy would make it a cash cow. Or maybe it doesn't, but Unix vendors for whom Linux is a competitor are keeping the issue alive to scare off possible Linux adopters.

If other organizations pay the licensing fee, it definitely helps SCO's suit. Microsoft Corp., for example, has agreed to license SCO's Unix patents and source code. Now why do you suppose that happened?

Shawn P. McCarthy is president of an information services development company.
E-mail him at internaut@diagonalmediagroup.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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