According to some opponents of free software, users of that software are
taking grave risks. The GPL, it is said, is "viral" and can cause the loss
of a company's intellectual property. And free software users are exposed
to the possibility that somebody, somewhere, may have incorporated tainted
code, exposing users and distributors to unexpected liabilities. The
solution to these problems, of course, is to simply stick with safe,
licensed, proprietary software. It costs, and you sign away a lot of
rights, but the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from signing that license
agreement is worth it.
Except it's increasingly clear that things are not that way. We all owe
SCO a debt of gratitude for showing us how unsafe proprietary software can
be. That company is using proprietary licensing to press a truly
staggering set of claims over the work of others and power to disrupt
Consider first the issue of intellectual property. SCO CEO Darl McBride
recently gave an
interview which provided a clear picture of how he sees the ownership
of proprietary Unix systems:
Where people get a little confused is when they think of SCO Unix
as just the Unix that runs the cash register at McDonalds. We think
of this as a tree. We have the tree trunk, with Unix System 5
running right down the middle of the trunk. That is our core
ownership position on Unix.
Off the tree trunk, you have a number of branches, and these are
the various flavors of Unix. HP-UX, IBM's AIX, Sun Solaris,
Fujitsu, NEC--there are a number of flavors out there. SCO has a
couple of flavors, too, called OpenServer and UnixWare. But don't
confuse the branches with the trunk. The System 5 source code, that
is really the area that gives us incredible rights, because it
includes the control rights on the derivative works that branch off
from that trunk.
These "control rights" are at the core of the IBM lawsuit. SCO is claiming
that any work any vendor has ever put into a Unix system is subject to
SCO's control. Chris Sontag, the head of SCOsource, is
even more direct:
We believe that UNIX System V provided the basic building blocks
for all subsequent computer operating systems, and that they all
tend to be derived from UNIX System V (and therefore are claimed as
SCO's intellectual property).
SCO, it would seem, owns everything.
Compared to that claim, the allegedly "viral" nature of the GPL
(if you distribute something derived from a GPL-licensed product, the
derived product must also be licensed under the GPL) seems weak indeed.
SCO is laying claim to decades of work done by dozens of proprietary Unix
vendors, and that's just the starting point.
Does this claim have any basis in reality? SCO has posted the relevant
agreements on its IBM lawsuit
page, so this sort of thing can be checked - at least, for the IBM
case. The basic software
agreement ("Exhibit A") states (in section 2.01):
Such right to use includes the right to modify such SOFTWARE
PRODUCT and to prepare derivative works based on such SOFTWARE
PRODUCT, provided the resulting materials are treated hereunder as
part of the original SOFTWARE PRODUCT.
Since the agreement on the original "SOFTWARE PRODUCT" includes
prohibitions on disclosure, this language would seem to back up SCO's
claim. Thus, technologies like read-copy-update, which were never part of
any SCO product, could be said to come under this agreement and be
prohibited from disclosure. In fact, the language could even be read to
transfer ownership of any modifications to SCO, except that IBM caught that
and forced a change ("Exhibit C"):
Regarding section 2.01, we agree that modifications and derivative
works prepared by or for you are owned by you. However, ownership
of any portion or portions of SOFTWARE PRODUCTS included in any
such modification or derivative work remains with us.
So IBM owns its changes. But the company might have signed away its
right to disclose its changes to others or deploy them in other contexts.
Other vendors with less-aware lawyers may well have signed away all
ownership to their Unix work.
So much for the safety of intellectual property in the proprietary
Of course, all this is IBM's problem. As SCO and others have stated,
customers are better off with licensed, proprietary software, since it is
warranted against intellectual property problems. Sun Microsystems plans to press
this point to its advantage. The only problem is that, once again,
SCO has shown us that this statement is not true.
SCO is attempting to revoke IBM's license to distribute AIX. This move
does not just affect IBM; consider this quote from Chris
Sontag, the head of SCOsource:
SCO said that the termination of the AIX license means that all IBM
Unix customers also have no license to use the software. "This
termination not only applies to new business by IBM, but also
existing copies of AIX that are installed at all customer
sites. All of it has to be destroyed," Sontag said.
All of those AIX customers did exactly what they are supposed to do: they
signed a proprietary license, paid their fees, and went off with the idea
that they had bought the right to use the system on their machines. Now it
appears that Unix users, at SCO's whim, can be deprived of the software
upon which they have built their businesses. Proprietary Unix, it would
seem, is a foundation built upon sand. Given that Microsoft felt the need
to buy a Unix license from SCO, it is not clear that Windows users are in
any better shape. One might assume that SCO would not try to pull the plug
on Windows, but the possibility exists regardless. We look forward to the
forthcoming warning from the Gartner Group.
SCO's actions have pointed out the very real possibility for trouble
resulting from the incorporation of proprietary code into a free product.
This is an issue that should probably be taken more seriously throughout
the free software community in the future. But SCO has also made it
painfully clear that the proprietary world, too, has its traps, and those
traps are at least as frightening as any faced by free software users.
Taken to their extreme, the proprietary rights claimed by SCO give that
company ownership and control over most computing systems on the planet.
It is a frightening thing to contemplate.
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