Expert shrugs at SCO

One Canadian Linux guru is not spooked by the SCO Group’s recent claims that intellectual property violations exist in the Linux source code, potentially making commercial Linux users legally liable for using the code.

“I think it’s hogwash,” said Matthew Rice, head of the Canadian Linux Users Exchange (CLUE) and partner with Starnix, a Linux solutions provider in Toronto. “There’s no way they’re going to go after everyone who bought a copy of Linux, and they’re not going to get anything out of me.”

SCO, which owns the Unix operating system, made the move to abandon its Linux business following its March 7 lawsuit against IBM Corp., in which SCO claimed that IBM misappropriated code it had acquired during an ill-fated effort to create a common Unix for the 64-bit Itanium chip architecture. SCO and IBM both were involved in that endeavour.

Then SCO earlier this month announced it was abandoning its Linux business and warned commercial Linux users they may be liable for intellectual property violations that, it alleges, exist in the Linux source code.

Also this month,The Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft Corp. has agreed to license Unix technology from The SCO Group in a move that could support SCO’s controversial efforts to collect royalties from companies using the open source Linux operating system, a Unix clone.

“SCO owns the Unix operating system, and as we’ve been researching our suit against IBM, we’ve been doing our due diligence,” said Chris Sontag, the senior vice-president and general manager of SCOsource. “We’ve started identifying more and more lines of code that are derived from our Unix System V source,” he said.

The possibility of someone claiming Linux as part of their intellectual property has been looming over the open source community for years, said Rice, and this is a chance to see how the concept of open source will hold up in court.

But Rice added that even if there is some code within Linux that oversteps intellectual property boundaries, it won’t be long before the offending code is replaced and an “unencumbered” version of Linux is made available.

He recommended IT managers take a “wait-and-see” approach. “There are a lot of alternatives even if, in the worst-case scenario, SCO wins – what they’ll win is some sort of injunction against distributing their source code, but that would be replaced very quickly, which is something we’ve been playing with.”

Sontag said the Linux kernel, as well as “extended areas of Linux distributions,” contain copyright violations. “But Linux could easily run on a different kernel,” Rice said, pointing to Debian, a Linux distribution which can run on either a Linux or a BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) kernel, as an example. BSD is a version of the Unix OS developed by the University of California, Berkeley (UCB). “We could do that same thing, although I don’t think it would ever get to that point,” Rice said.

Sontag declined to say where the alleged violations in the kernel and distributions have occurred, but at press time said SCO was preparing to present this evidence, under nondisclosure agreement, to a select group of industry analysts within a few weeks.

He has advised commercial users to seek legal counsel about the use of the Linux operating system. “We are only concerned about commercial use,” he said, “Home or educational use, where there is no commercial benefit, we’re not concerned about,” he added.

Rice said the focus on commercial users flags SCO as a “money grabber,” suggesting that the latest warnings could be interpreted as a “scorched-earth campaign to frighten people away from Linux so they consider extending their licences of Unix.

“I don’t know what they’re planning, but SCO hasn’t been doing too well. If they can’t make money the old-fashioned way, they might try to do anything they can.”

Disagreements over code ownership have arisen before, and their results might provide some clues as to what might happen in the SCO-Linux case, Rice said. In 1994, Novell Inc., having acquired Unix System Labs Inc., launched a lawsuit against UCB, alleging that the BSD OS contained restricted material. After a simple file clean-up, BSD survived. “My guess is if anything similar with Linux happened, there would be no way SCO could claim ownership over Linux.”

Rice also recalled how IT solutions company Unisys, which holds a patent for LZW, a compression algorithm used in GIF (graphics interchange format), in 1999 introduced licensing for LZW. But that plan backfired, according to Rice. “All that did was speed up usage of the PNG (portable network graphics) format,” which is patent-free, “and it effectively killed GIF.”

In some ways, SCO might even be doing Linux a favour, and not just because of the publicity the billion-dollar lawsuit is generating, Rice remarked.

“If SCO loses the case, it signals a good sign for open source in general. But if they win, it still clears up the issue, because people will take a closer look at their open source practices…This is definitely causing lot of confusion, but I’m not worried even if SCO prove successful, because it will not cause any serious hiccup in Linux.”

– With files from IDG News Service