Rumors have been circulating for a few weeks: SCO, it is said, has hired a
fancy law firm and will be pursuing intellectual property claims against
Linux users and distributors. The level of concern has dropped somewhat as
the company has announced its short-term plans, which are relatively
uncontroversial. The full picture remains
cloudy at best, however; SCO's intellectual property push could yet present
the Linux community
with its first serious legal difficulties.
For the moment, SCO's plans can be seen in this
press release from LinuxWorld. A new division (called "SCOsource") has
been created for the express purpose of expanding the licensing of the
company's intellectual property, "including the core UNIX source
For now, SCOsource only has one offering: the company's System V
libraries for Linux. These libraries allow users to run SCO Unix
applications under Linux; nobody has ever really confused them with free
software. SCO's desire to realize some revenue from use of this
proprietary product is not likely to upset that many people.
SCO seemingly does not intend to stop there, however; the company clearly
believes that Linux (and other systems) may contain code or techniques
which infringe upon its
intellectual property. We asked Chris Sontag, Vice
President of SCO's Operating Systems division, about this investigation and
the uncertainty it creates in the Linux community; he responded:
The only way that SCO will be able to reduce that uncertainty is to
research and investigate whether any of our intellectual property
currently resides within Linux, which is what the law firm of
Boies, Schiller and Flexner are currently doing. We are actively
taking steps to try and reduce that uncertainty and we hope to
announce the results of their findings in the coming months.
So SCO thinks that the possibility of its intellectual property "residing"
with Linux is enough, at least, to justify the hiring of an expensive law
firm to check it out.
What sort of SCO property might be found within Linux? One possible issue,
of course, is software patents; it is essentially impossible to know which
patents might be infringed by any given body of code. Any patents that SCO
might have picked up with its ownership of Unix are likely to be expired by
now, but the SCO could have other patents up its sleeve. The patent threat
is not new, of course, and SCO is far from the only company which could
conceivably create patent problems for Linux.
The other possible
source of trouble is SCO's ownership of the Unix System V code. That
SCO takes a broad view of what it owns can be seen in the impressive "SCO
Intellectual Property Pedigree" that it has posted; it is
set of diagrams with lots of arrows showing how just about everything
(including Linux, QNX, Mach, Minix, and more) derives from the initial Unix
system. A tiny piece of this diagram appears on the right side of this page.
Linux, one would think, should not have copyright problems with regard to
SCO's Unix code; it was, after all, reimplemented from the beginning. That
should be true, as long as nobody who has contributed to any Linux
application has borrowed from the Unix code base. Given the number of
people and vast amount of code involved, it would not be entirely
surprising if a bit of borrowed code showed up somewhere.
What will SCO do if it finds something? As might be expected, the company
is not willing to say much:
If we found unlicensed use of our intellectual property in a
product like Linux, any action we would take would have to be based
on the scope, source and impact of the violation. We do not feel we
can rule out any particular response without impairing our
fiduciary responsibility to our stockholders to protect their
property. Certainly our first choice in helping to resolve this
issue would not to be heavy handed in our response.
In other words, anything could happen, though SCO would try to not upset
too many people.
if SCO turns up something that, it thinks, could be turned into licensing
revenue, the company is likely to pursue that path. SCO is not in the
strongest financial position, currently, and could use a new revenue
stream. Of course, most other Linux companies are not going to be a great
source of cash for SCO at the moment. It might well be that SCO's real
target - if there is a target in the end - could be somebody with deeper
pockets. Apple or Sun, say.
Sooner or later, Linux is going to face a big intellectual property
challenge. If it doesn't come from SCO, somebody else is certain to pick
up the slack. Even if Linux and the companies working with it emerge
victorious, this sort of challenge can only serve to create uncertainty and
doubt around Linux and free software in general. It will be interesting to
see how it all plays out.
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