SCOurge of the Linux Community

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Not having attended ourselves, all we can say is that this week’s SCOForum must have been a reporter’s dream. Rarely do you get a singular event so passionately fought on all sides; even the Microsoft/Sun squabbles of recent years pale in comparison.
By this time of course, just about everyone even peripherally involved in the IT community – and many of those with no ties to it whatsoever – is aware that is currently involved in litigation with vendors like IBM and Red Hat around the open source Linux operating system.
Comparing itself at times to the piracy-obsessed RIAA, an allusion it might very well be better off not making, SCO has been fighting a multi-front war of words with vendors like IBM and Novell;  Linux advocates like Linus Torvalds; the Open Source Initiative (in an amicus brief here); the Free Software Foundation; and of course the true zealots like MozillaQuest.
For those of you out there who’ve been hiding in a cave, the basic events that kicked everything into gear are detailed by the O’Reilly Network here. For the legally inclined, The Inquirer collects some opinions from the only folks actually qualified to have an opinion on the legality of the various claims, meaning the lawyers, here.
But while we’re not here to recap this whole legal saga, we felt compelled to comment on a few of this week’s more interesting events.

  1. Is Open Source Really the Target?

    From his comments to News.com, one might get the impression that Mark Heise (one of the Boies Schiller & Flexner attorneys defending SCO) and his clients are fighting against an evil open source cancer rather than litigating a major copyright case. This open source cancer apparently threatens proprietary software makers everywhere. When asked why this case is important, Heise responds:
    It’s a case that has the possibility of defining what direction the software industry is going. Are we going to have an open-source free-for-all?

    Make no mistake; this case has substantial implications for the software industry in general, as the future of Linux is at stake. But we must have missed the memo informing us that the GPL was poised to wipe out proprietary software.

    Instead, this seems to be more posturing from SCO. To dilute some of the harsh criticism it’s faced, it couches its arguments not just in terms of a business decision, but also in the righteous tones of the just. First it was copyright issues that it was crusading on behalf of (hence the RIAA comparisons), now it’s the right to make proprietary software. One might ask, of course, why it then continues to use open source software (SAMBA) in its own products, but why not have your cake and eat it too?
    Needless to say, we’re more than a little skeptical of their objectives. As is the excellent GROKLAW.

  2. Conspiracy Theory and IBM:

    Perhaps more interesting than the Heise interview was the interview with the CEO of SCO, Darl McBride,  in which he claims that IBM is behind all of the open source attacks on SCO. Speaking to Bob McMillan, McBride claims that:

    “We have absolute direct knowledge of this. If you go behind the scenes, the attacks that we get that don’t have IBM’s name on them, underneath the covers, are sponsored by IBM,” McBride said.

    Our response is simple and twofold: first, let’s see the proof. If this experience has taught SCO anything, it should be that the industry’s not going to take SCO’s word for it. But more importantly, so what? Even if SCO was able to prove this, which would seem difficult given that everyone from Eric Raymond to Red Hat has denied it, we don’t see it making much difference. And it also doesn’t seem likely that IBM has had to beat the drum and draw up support for the attack on Linux; SCO more than took care of that for them.

    SCO, right or wrong, has made a lot of enemies with their litigation. Aside from Microsoft who paid up early  to thumb its nose at vendors like IBM, and lukewarm support from vendors like Sun and HP, SCO hasn’t got a lot of friends right now. The courts will ultimately rule on the validity of their claims, but in the interim SCO is fighting a war against not only open source-oriented vendors like IBM and Red Hat, but against a community of thousands of idealistic developers, engineers and architects who believe passionately in open source.

    How those forces are marshaled ultimately shouldn’t be SCO’s primary concern. The community SCO has antagonized unfortunately represents many of their would-be customers. SCO should therefore bother itself less with who’s organizing the complaints then determining how it will attract customers if it manages to win its case. Because if SCO can’t win those developers its antagonized back, any court victory could well prove to be a pyrrhic one.

  3. No Conclusions from the Code:

    Worried perhaps that its claims were starting to wilt in the absence of any evidence to support them – or more accurately, evidence available to the general public – SCO took the opportunity to show publicly for the first time some of the code at the heart of the dispute. It took all of a whole afternoon for the code to make its way on to the web, as the initial code snippets were snapped up by a German publisher and posted to the web within hours. The presentation that included the code is available here.
    So the day everyone had been waiting for the day regular, everyday people who haven’t signed an NDA get a look at the code in question has come and gone, and what are the results? Well, depends on who you ask.

    Among others, Bruce Perens, the notable Linux advocate and developer dissents with SCO’s position. And that’s putting it mildly. He says that of the two pieces SCO showed one isn’t SCO’s property at all, and the other is used in Linux under a valid license. So if SCO’s aim was to produce a smoking gun that would silence some of its harsher open source critics, it can chalk this one up as a failure. For its part, SCO doesn’t concur:
    SCO disputed Perens’ claims. “We’re the owners of the Unix (AT&T) System V code, and so we would know what it would look like,” he said. “Until it comes to court, it’s going to be our word against theirs.”
    And ultimately, in the latter point at least, SCO is absolutely correct. Claiming to have identified over a million lines of code that are improperly included in Linux, a look at two modules won’t prove a thing one way or another. It is curious that it couldn’t have picked two more clear cut, smoking gun-type examples, but not damning in and of itself. NewsForge makes the claim that based on earlier statements from McBride the infringing code is in version 2.4 of the kernel, but given that less than a million lines were added from 2.3 to 2.4 it means that virtually every addition came from infringing code. They also relay Linus Torvald’s response to McBride’s million line claim: He’s lying.

RedMonk Take
So what are we to make out of all of this? Well, we’re not lawyers so we can’t comment on the legal aspects of the case, nor are we hard core kernel programmers suited to offering opinions on the code exhibits. But we’re very clear on one point, which is that the situation needs to be resolved sooner rather than later. The Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt surrounding this whole mess benefits no one; certainly not open source advocates or vendors, as Linux must eventually suffer from the shadow of potential licensing costs, and not even SCO. To be sure, the initial surge of attention returned SCO to the limelight from has-been status, and rescued it from the jaws of delisting. But after the initial furor, SCO’s position has clearly backslid, as SCO has yet to decisively prove its case, and mounting challenges, legal and otherwise, raise more and more questions about the validity of their claims.

In other words, it’s in everybody’s best interests to see this case resolved. If there are in fact a million lines of code in question, it’s going to take the courts a long time to chew through them, so why not get this started sooner rather than later? Since it appears that it’s going to take a court of law to force SCO to divulge its alleged bounty of infringed code so be it. Let’s get to that ASAP so that we can stop covering the finger pointing and get back to covering technology.

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