Users Outraged as SCO Stakes Linux Legal Claim

Vendor says companies using the OS may face liabilities because of Unix code infringement

In a startling development, The SCO Group last week put corporate Linux users on notice that they could become legal targets as part of its campaign to enforce intellectual property claims it has made on Unix. The threat outraged many IT managers but left some users worried about potential liabilities.

In a letter that was posted on its Web site and sent by mail to about 1,500 large companies, Lindon, Utah-based SCO claimed that Linux is "an unauthorized derivative of Unix" and that some of SCO's code has been illegally incorporated into the open-source operating system. It asserted that legal risks may extend to users that run Linux.

This is the third major punch SCO has thrown at Linux since January, when the software vendor said it was setting up a technology licensing division to ensure that users and vendors combined Unix and Linux code "legitimately." In March, SCO sued IBM, charging it with illegally using Unix technology in connection with Linux.

Joe Poole, technical support manager at Boscov's Department Store LLC in Reading, Pa., said Linux users "will not stand for this. There are just too many of us now." Boscov's uses Linux on an IBM zSeries mainframe to reduce the number of servers it has to manage (see related story).

Poole accused SCO executives of trying to use the legal maneuvers to increase Unix technology licensing revenue so they can "cash in when their company's failing." He noted that he would become more concerned if SCO's lawsuit against IBM were to succeed but said that's not a sure thing. "They haven't proven anything," Poole said. "Right now, I'm just amused."

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But Brad Friedman, vice president of information services at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. in Burlington, N.J., said SCO's legal threat "bears to be watched by people like ourselves who use Linux." The same applies to its suit against IBM, he said.

It's too early to determine if or how Burlington Coat will be affected, Friedman said. But he plans to seek legal advice to better gauge "the potential implications and what we should be doing about it, if anything."

Referring to the open-source intellectual property issues being raised by SCO, Tony Iams, an analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc. in Port Chester, N.Y., said it was "only a matter of time before some of these were tested in court."

But a key reason for SCO's legal onslaught could be the economic effect Linux is having on the company, Iams said. An upcoming D.H. Brown report comparing Linux distributions with SCO's UnixWare operating system shows that Linux is "better than or equal to UnixWare in their functional capabilities," he added.

Defensive Posture

Darl McBride, SCO's CEO, insisted that the company's actions are reasonable. "These are our crown jewels we're talking about," he said. "The world is not about stealing people's code, laundering it and saying everything's OK. In the end, what you could see come out of this is legal Linux."

For now, though, Linux vendors that continue to ship the operating system will do so "at their own peril," McBride warned. SCO is immediately halting sales of its own Linux releases, though the company said it will continue to support existing users and won't target them for any legal action.

SCO's legal fight could fail even if some of the company's source code did make its way into Linux, said Daniel Ravicher, an attorney who specializes in open-source legal matters at Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler LLP, a New York-based law firm.

"The worst-case scenario is that some people have to have a pizza party and do some recoding" to replace any allegedly offending code, Ravicher said. "In the most likely scenario, [SCO has] no case with substantial merit."

George Weiss, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said SCO's campaign against Linux could discourage use of the operating system. But Weiss added that he hasn't seen anything like that happen since SCO filed its lawsuit against IBM.

Weiss said he has asked SCO executives to show him examples of specific Unix code in Linux, but they have declined to do so, citing the ongoing legal actions. "We really only have SCO's word for it, which they're attempting to make very compelling," he said.

In an e-mail interview, Linux creator Linus Torvalds said he would "love to hear what it is they consider infringing, since I'd like to go back and see where it got adopted."

Torvalds said it's possible to track the origin of any section of the Linux kernel. "We've got all the history available somewhere, and it should be pretty easy to show when something was added and what the lineage was," he wrote.

Robert McMillan of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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