Summary of SCO's battle for Linux

by Kevin Bedell

Is there a big storm brewing on Linux's horizon? Or is this a tempest in a teapot? From my point of view, it's likely both.

But before we rush to judgement, let's look at what's happening.

SCO owns the rights to the Unix operating system. Back in the beginning, Unix was developed by AT&T at Bell Labs.

But AT&T sold the rights to Unix to Novell. Novell then sold them to SCO. SCO was then purhcased by Caldera which then changed their name to SCO. And now the 'new' SCO owns the rights to the Unix operating system.

SCO makes money by licensing the rights to Unix to a bunch of companies that make their own versions of Unix (AIX from IBM, for example). But with the given rise of Linux, the value of SCO's Unix is dropping.

Some are saying that SCO believes it might be worth more to its investors if it could legally claim to 'own' parts of Linux and force companies to pay them for using it - or at least if it could sue IBM for a billion dollars. They may be right. SCO is betting the farm that they are.

What SCO alleges is that IBM made the source code for AIX available to Linux developers who either copied major parts of it directly into Linux or else copied parts of it while making a few changes to hide the fact that the code came from AIX.

Here's a link to a statement that SCO posted on their site yesterday In it they say they believe Linux contains their code and that users should be wary of using it. Here's the text of a letter that they actually sent hundreds of commercial Linux customers. In the letter they say they are willing to do whatever it takes to legally protect their property.

So what should you do? It depends on who you ask. According to this note from the Gartner Group, it's unclear whether or not SCO can make a case. But they also say that this will take time to play out and may have an impact on Linux adoption rates. According this article posted in ZDNet UK News, the Meta Group is saying not to worry about using Linux for now. After all, they reason, SCO's arguments haven't been proven yet and it may take a year or longer to get things sorted out and determine what's really going to happen.

What's my opinion? Of course, I'm no lawyer, but here goes.

I think that it's extremely unlikely that SCO is going to take legal action against individual companies that are using Linux. And it shouldn't take long for the Linux community to rewrite the code that SCO is contesting once it's identified. To me this means that there are really only three likely outcomes if SCO's claims are upheld:

  • SCO will arrive at a settlement and drop their claims.
  • SCO will be acquired by some company with a strong interest in the growth of Linux and the claims will be dropped
  • SCO will be acquired by some company with deep pockets that thinks they can take on IBM and actaully win the $1 billion dollars.

There are a couple other things that seem very likely as well. First, that other companies all over the world right now are looking at the Linux code base to see if it contains any of their code. Depending on what happens with SCO, other's may follow suit if their code has also been misappropriated. Second, SCO will likely lose a great deal of whatever goodwill they had from their customer base.

But, whatever happens, this is something that will likely play out among a few big players in the Linux and Software businesses. Commercial users of the software should be largely unaffected.

So - there it is. A big storm on the horizon for a few big companies fighting over intellectual property rights with billions of dollars at stake. But I don't think Linux users need to worry too much - the real money for SCO will come from taking on IBM, not Linux users themselves.

PS. Added thanks to the link below to Eric Raymond's brilliant work outlining the facts behind "Who Owns Unix".

Eric Raymond has made potentially his greatest contribution to the open source community with his incredible analysis of the issues behind this topic. Eric asks - and then answers - the question "Who Owns Unix"?


2003-05-15 06:30:10
OSI Position Paper on the SCO-vs.-IBM Complaint
A more detailed history and issues of Unix,SCO,BSD and Linux can be found in OSI Position Paper on the SCO-vs.-IBM Complaint.
2003-05-15 10:42:12
Small companies should worry
Best bet is to come clean and go 100% Microsoft immediately. Later, when linux's al Qaeda ties are exposed, you will only have to explain your past fellow travelling.
2003-05-17 21:31:53
Microsoft is no safe haven against Patents
Microsoft's SQL Server developers face huge royalty bills. How many, how much?
2003-07-25 13:55:03
Small companies should worry
Can I get some of what this dude is smoking?