Irresponsible SCO

by Andy Oram

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A lot of brickbats are coming the way of SCO since it launched a lawsuit against IBM on the grounds of trade secrets. What's scandalous is not the choice to resort to a lawsuit--because companies have to defend these sorts of things in court in order to preserve their meaning--but the disregard for the needs of Linux users, developers, vendors, and watchers everywhere. SCO chose a low road indeed, trying to maximize its legal flexibility instead of acting like a member of a community.

Linux supporters are worried about this for good reason. The lawsuit inevitably recalls the suit AT&T brought against one branch of BSD developers in 1992. Then as now, the issue was that developers had access to UNIX during the time they developed their own code. The AT&T complaint involved copyright rather than trade secrets, but the parallels are unmistakable.

Although my memory may deceive me, I believe AT&T never demonstrated that a single line of BSD code originated in UNIX (which officially should be written in all-caps). The lawsuit was resolved after many years, but a lot of people blame the confusion around the suit for the stagnation of BSD and its inability to take off at the crucial moment when people were looking for a free software operating system. (I doubt that the lawsuit was the problem, but it did waste time and make a mess of things.)

AT&T sold its rights to UNIX long ago, apparently recognizing that it was managing every aspect of that valuable technology with the same incompetence that it had conducted the BSD lawsuit. As intellectual property, UNIX bounced around for a while and ended up at SCO. It's probably no coincidence that SCO decides to act the heavy around this period when many observers believe UNIX is dying and that Linux will take over where it stood.

But they know very well what problems and bad feelings the BSD lawsuit reached. They know how many people (roughly) depend on Linux day by day. What would a responsible company do to uphold its rights while allowing the world to continue?

SCO could have examined Linux code and determined where their purported trade secrets lay. They would then have widely publicized the disputed code. They'd say, "Don't use JFS" (or whatever it happened to be); "we're litigating it." Whatever components were in dispute could quickly be pulled out of the kernel; users could depend on other components for whatever functionality they needed.

Of course, SCO's lawyers wouldn't tell them to do this. I'm sure the lawyers want as wide a field to play on as they can get. And it is not they who will be appalled when play is done and they discover the whole field has been turned into a desert.

SCO can still overrule its narrow-minded lawyers and take a high road. If they've got a claim, make it clearly. That is what the public deserves. Judging from the scattered news reports I've read, they refused to be specific even in the legal complaint they sent the court.

And this hand-waving is a tell-tale sign of weakness. We are all justified in assuming, till we have evidence to the contrary, that SCO's lawsuit will go the way of the evidence the Bush administration waved about excitedly for months concerning aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq, now revealed by weapons inspectors on the ground to bear no relation to weapons of mass destruction. But millions of users around the world are in limbo until we know for sure, and there is no reason for that except malice or hamfistedness on the part of SCO.

What's behind the lawsuit?


2003-03-11 03:50:59
The ATT lawsuit was against BSDI for selling a commercial BSD without an ATT source license. It was not against "BSD" or even UC-Berkeley.

BSD was not stagnant. What the lawsuit did was interrupt the porting of BSD to the i386 architecture. Worried developers interested in i386 jumped ship and found Linux.

ATT sold UNIX to Novell prior to the resolution of the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was not won or lost, it was settled. One of the catalysts for settlement was UC-Berkeley's countersuit against AT&T claiming that UNIX contained uncreditied BSD code.

The settlement stipulated that 3 files were removed from BSD4.4, and USL copyrights added to about 70 others with the qualification that they would remain freely redistributable.

A further stipulation of the settlement was that any operating system derived from BSD4.4-Lite would forever be free of USL intellectual property claims. You won't see SCO suing Apple, or WindRiver.

2003-03-12 09:44:11
A lot more than trade secrets...
IBM apparently has serious contractual obligations related to AIX that it has disregarded in its push to take over linux. It is typical of many linux enthusiasts to miss the danger that an old time monopolist like IBM poses. In any case, the suit targets IBM - a massive multinational corporation - and not linux users generally. If IBM and other for profit corporations are forced to keep their greedy hands off of linux that's all to the good!
2003-05-15 05:35:44
SCO was selling linux under GPL
What does that mean for their threat against linux users?

Surely any claim for license rights is negated by publishing a work containing the disputed code under the GPL by the claimant?

I think it will be laughed out of court.