Novell calls on SCO to prove allegations about Linux

A letter from Novell CEO Jack Messman appeared on its Web site

Novell Inc. today forcefully joined the tumult surrounding Unix and Linux by challenging The SCO Group Inc. to put up or shut up over its allegations that some of SCO's Unix code has illegally made its way into Linux.

In a letter on its Web site from Novell CEO and President Jack Messman, the Provo, Utah-based company lashed out by challenging SCO's assertion that it owns the copyrights and patents to Unix System V. Novell, which had previously acquired the Unix systems business of AT&T Corp., broke up and sold its Unix properties in 1994 and 1995. One of those deals was with the former Santa Cruz Operation, which was bought by Caldera International Inc. and later became The SCO Group.

In his letter, Messman said the purchase agreement entered into between Novell and SCO in 1995 didn't transfer the System V rights to SCO.

"To Novell's knowledge, the 1995 agreement governing SCO's purchase of UNIX from Novell does not convey to SCO the associated copyrights," Messman said in the letter. "We believe it unlikely that SCO can demonstrate that it has any ownership interest whatsoever in those copyrights. Apparently you share this view, since over the last few months you have repeatedly asked Novell to transfer the copyrights to SCO, requests that Novell has rejected."

Messman's letter also asks SCO to immediately prove its assertion that certain Unix System V code has been copied into Linux.

"SCO claims it has specific evidence supporting its allegations against the Linux community," Messman's letter said. "It is time to substantiate that claim, or recant the sweeping and unsupported allegation made in your letter. Absent such action, it will be apparent to all that SCO's true intent is to sow fear, uncertainty and doubt about Linux in order to extort payments from Linux distributors and users."

In a reply to Messman's letter, SCO issued a statement today saying, "SCO owns the contract rights to the Unix operating system. SCO has the contractual right to prevent improper donations of Unix code, methods or concepts into Linux by any Unix vendor.

"SCO's lawsuit against IBM does not involve patents or copyrights. SCO's complaint specifically alleges breach of contract, and SCO intends to protect and enforce all of the contracts that the company has with more than 6,000 licensees. We formed SCOsource in January 2003 to enforce our UNIX rights and we intend to aggressively continue in this successful path of operation."

The growing battle came to a head in March when SCO sued IBM for $1 billion, alleging that the company misappropriated trade secrets related to SCO's Unix products to benefit IBM's Linux strategy (see story). SCOsource was created to enforce what SCO claims is its position as the majority owner of Unix intellectual property (see story).

In another startling move, SCO sent out a letter two weeks ago to nearly 1,500 global companies that use Linux in their businesses warning them that they should seek legal advice because their use of Linux could leave them liable for damages under SCO's pending intellectual property claims (see story).

Messman's letter today includes an open letter to SCO CEO and President Darl McBride, outlining Novell's announcement last month that it's moving its product line to Linux and pointing out Novell's commitment to Linux and the open-source development community (see story).

Messman said Novell was one of the companies that received SCO's warning letter, which "compels a response from Novell."

"In particular, the letter leaves certain critical questions unanswered," Messman wrote. "What specific code was copied from UNIX System V? Where can we find this code in Linux? Who copied this code? Why does this alleged copying infringe SCO's intellectual property? By failing to address these important questions, SCO has failed to put us on meaningful notice of any allegedly infringing Linux code, and thus has withheld from us the ability -- and removed any corresponding obligation -- to address your allegation."

Messman wrote that "SCO continues to say that it owns the UNIX System V patents, yet it must know that it does not. A simple review of U.S. Patent Office records reveals that Novell owns those patents."

Graham Bird, a spokesman for The Open Group, which has owned the trademark for Unix on behalf of the Unix industry since it was transferred by Novell in 1994, said SCO is wrong when it asserts that it owns Unix. "That's not true," Bird said. "What they own is some source code and technology" for UnixWare. "That's not the same thing as owning Unix.

"If you're an uneducated observer of this, it would be very easy to say that SCO owns Unix, which is not the case," Bird said.

Bruce Perens, a Berkeley, Calif.-based leader in the free software and open-source communities and a critic of SCO's recent actions, lauded Novell's move.

"Novell has answered the call of the open-source community," Perens said. "We admire what they are doing. Based on recent announcements to support Linux with NetWare services and now this revelation ... Novell has just won the hearts and minds of developers and corporations alike."

Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at market research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass., said the Novell letter now widens the battle.

"It's a food fight" among several parties, he said. "As an industry analyst, I'm sitting back and watching. This is a set of intriguing developments that stands to only help one company, and it's none of the companies that are participating now."

The beneficiary would likely be Microsoft Corp., because the legal squabbles could hurt the Linux market and turn businesses against even thinking about additional Unix deployments, Kusnetzky said, adding, "Where would companies turn?"

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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