Bowling for Linux: Episode IV

  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

The SCO Group announced on July 21, 2003, that it has developed a new licensing plan for SCO's UnixWare 7.1.3. It's a license for the use of UnixWare in conjunction with any Linux product. According to Darl McBride, CEO of SCO Group, "This licensing format will assure that Linux users will be able to run Linux in full compliance with SCO's underlying [intellectual property] rights."

In other words, if you're using Linux, you'd better buy UnixWare 7.1.3. Why? Because if you don't and SCO Group wins its $1 billion lawsuit against IBM, your company may be faced with its own legal battle.

Sound like protection money? Well, of course, it is!

According to SCO, IBM has misappropriated SCO's UNIX intellectual property by releasing segments of code that were originally developed for IBM's AIX operating system. It says IBM has distributed this contested code with the Linux open-source code that enables the Linux kernel to run on all of IBM's eServer machines. Last March, SCO filed its original $1 billion lawsuit against IBM after it failed to win licensing concessions from IBM. The value of the SCO lawsuit has since risen to $3 billion. In May, SCO sent letters to 1,500 companies warning them that it "might" seek damages from any organization that uses the Linux operating system. Then, last month, SCO rescinded IBM's license to sell the AIX operating system, which it claims is a derivative of the code that SCO owns and which is the base operating system of the pSeries eServer computer.

IBM, for its part, claims that no SCO intellectual property rights have been violated and that it intends to vigorously defend its position in court. Yet, because IBM has not announced any plans to address its lack of AIX operating system licenses, customers of AIX are waiting nervously for some words of relief. After all, new pSeries computers rely upon AIX to run. And since iSeries servers rely upon pSeries hardware, it's making iSeries customers a little worried, too. At present, it's unclear how IBM is shipping new pSeries products if IBM's AIX license from SCO has been nullified.

The Smell of Money

This new SCO license for users of Linux stands to further muddy a field of uncertainty and doubt. SCO, according to McBride, has begun discussing the new licensing scheme with corporate Linux users. But Linux advocates are already pointing to the proposed licensing scheme as an illegal agreement that violates the GNU General Public License (GPL) of the Linux operating system itself.

Linux is distributed under the GNU GPL through the Free Software Foundation. It stipulates that the source code of Linux must be made available with every distribution of Linux. It also states that purchasers of the Linux operating system must be free to distribute and modify the source code itself. This "free" distribution and modification marketing scheme has allowed Linux to be rapidly embraced by an international community of programmers and developers, who in turn have propelled the open-source operating system to new levels of acceptance within corporations. Undoubtedly, few original Linux source members have been altered by the majority of license holders. Yet, by making the source freely available, companies like IBM--with in-depth technical expertise--have been able to adapt the code to run on a host of new computers, including the pSeries, the iSeries, the xSeries, and the zSeries.

Clearly, SCO Group wants a piece of that action, as sales of its UNIX OS have suffered in direct proportion to Linux's rise to glory. It obviously figures, in this climate of uncertainty within corporate IT shops, that by offering this UnixWare 7.1.3 license, Linux customers can feel more secure. If the license protects the customer from a lawsuit by SCO, McBride argues, isn't it worth the money to license UnixWare?

Feeding the Hand That Is Biting You

However, by placing restrictions on the Linux source code, SCO's scheme would create an untenable licensing morass for Linux developers. These developers point out that, if the UnixWare license goes into effect, it would limit the "free distribution" marketing model that has fostered so much of Linux's success. In the minds of some legal experts, this would leave SCO Group open to a second round of lawsuits because SCO Group itself was distributing Linux up until 2003.

In related statements, SCO also announced on July 21 that it had finally received U.S. copyright registration for its UNIX source code, a move that observers say is a necessary precursor to any copyright-based litigation. Last May, Novell claimed that it still owned the copyright. But, according to Free Software Foundation general counsel Eben Moglen, it's a moot point. "You don't need a copyright license from anybody to use any program," he said. "That's like saying you need a copyright license to read a newspaper.... If there's plagiarized material in The New York Times, that doesn't mean that people who buy The New York Times are liable."

Nevertheless, though SCO CEO McBride declined to say exactly how SCO's licensing plan would work or exactly what it might cost, he was envisioning a per-processor license, with volume discounts available for some customers. But vendors of Linux claim that it's much too early to even conceive of a licensing arrangement. According to these vendors, SCO has still failed to show the code that is in dispute. Until SCO's claim is made clear, talk about a UnixWare licensing protection scheme is premature.

"SCO has not shown us any code contributed to Linux by IBM which violates SCO copyrights," said IBM spokeswoman Trink Guarino. "SCO needs to openly show the Linux community any copyrighted UNIX code which they claim is in Linux. SCO seems to be asking customers to pay for a license based on allegations, not facts."

Thomas M. Stockwell is editor in chief of MC Press, LP. He can be reached for comment at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..