Dance with elephants … part II

Last year, I wrote about OpenBSD founder Theo de Raadt's hard line stance against incorporating any of Sun's licensed code for elliptic curve cryptography into the open source OpenSSL technology, which is widely used to secure, for example, web pages on the internet.

Last year, I wrote about
OpenBSD founder Theo de Raadt’s hard line stance against incorporating any of Sun’s licensed code for elliptic curve cryptography into the open source OpenSSL technology, which is widely used to secure, for example, web pages on the internet.

The basis for de Raadt’s objection was that the software licence was unclear as to exactly how free the code was.

Some people may have thought de Raadt an extremist, but I hope they read about SCO Group’s lawsuit against IBM, requesting damages of “no less than $1 billion”, which appears to vindicate de Raadt’s position.

To recap what the lawsuit is about, SCO has hired star lawyer David Boies of Microsoft anti-trust case fame, claiming IBM has misappropriated trade secrets, as well as engaged in “tortious interference, unfair competition and breach of contract”.

SCO goes on to allege that IBM has “made concentrated [sic] efforts” to improperly destroy the economic value of Unix, … , to benefit IBM’s new Linux services business.”

Clownish legal language aside, the serious side to this is that SCO owns the rights to Unix and UnixWare, having bought them in 1995 from Novell, which in turn had bought the lot from AT&T. SCO then licensed Unix to IBM, among others – the current tally of Unix licensees is more than 30,000 apparently.

And, SCO says, the “misappropriation” comprises IBM copying Unix code and adding it to the Linux kernel – by making AIX (apparently originally licensed from AT&T) source code available to the open source community.

The Santa Cruz Operation was bought up by Caldera in 2001, and in 2002, the two became SCO Group. Yes, that Caldera, started by Ransom Love and Ray Noorda (ex-Novell), who are backing the UnitedLinux distribution.

SCO boss Darl McBride is on record as saying that the Linux kernel contains UnixWare code copied line-for-line, as well as obfuscated code. McBride refused to specify code had been copied, however, alleging the Linux community would remove the offending parts before the court hearing. In the legal papers filed at the Utah District Court, SCO rather patronisingly says Linux was akin to a toy OS until IBM stepped in.

Needless to say, the lawsuit and McBride’s comment have been a PR disaster of enormous proportions for SCO, drawing not just flames from the Linux community, but also a denial of service attack on the website.

While IBM strenuously denies any wrongdoing, the effects of the case are already being felt. There’s talk of SCO exploiting weaknesses in the open source model to boost its faltering bottom-line (the company lost $US25 million last year) by making spurious intellectual property licensing claims against Linux distributors and users.

The lawsuit is also forcing developers and kernel notables like Alan Cox, Richard Gooch, David Weinehall and even Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds to waste time and effort on refuting SCO’s claims that Linux is derived from Unix source code. The issue has been festering since early this year, and might drag on for several more months, unfortunately, hampering Linux development efforts.

UnitedLinux partners Conectiva, SuSE Linux and Turbolinux are caught in the cross-fire of the lawsuit and, while believed to be protected from legal action by SCO, at least SuSE has expressed “great disappointment” with the Utah company’s moves. It is difficult to see how the UnitedLinux distribution will survive SCO’s apparent enmity towards Linux.

Ironically, IBM provided funding for UnitedLinux as well, and must be re-evaluating its support for the consortium now.

Leaving aside the dubious merits of SCO’s lawsuit, it is clear that the position of Theo de Raadt is valid: corporate involvement in the open source movement by players encumbered with previous licensing agreements is a two-edged sword. IBM’s investment of $US1 billion in Linux was welcomed with open arms (no pun intended), but who would have thought at the time that it would lead to a huge legal mess?

If the open source movement values its freedom, it had better look those corporate gift horses carefully in the mouth in the future.

STOP PRESS: On May 14, SCO suspended sales and distribution of Linux and warned customers that "Linux is an anauthorised derivative of Unix and that legal liability may extend to commercial users".

Saarinen is an Auckland IT consultant and IDG contributor. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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