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The Battle for Unix Rages On April 3, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Strategy.
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It’s hard to believe that all of this started seven years ago.  Even before that, AT&T sold off Unix System V to Novell, which was seeking its next generation of networking software to replace the venerable but aging Netware.  But Novell couldn’t pull it off, eventually selling Unix again to the Santa Cruz Operation.  That entire company was acquired by Caldera, a failing Linux vendor, and that company was renamed the SCO Group.

Probably because this company was involved with both the open source Linux and the proprietary Unix, it noticed a certain similarity in source files between the two.  Because Linux aspires to be a functional equivalent of Unix, this is no surprise, but it begs the question of whether Unix was copied as a part of the Linux development process.  This is especially true of header files, which are plain text files that define the variables and data structures used in the executable code.

I’m no lawyer, but while copying header files may well violate copyright laws, it is also conceivable that such files may also fall under the fair use allowances of copyright works.  If they are in fact copied, it may be akin to copying the table of contents of a book.

Anyway, the SCO Group filed suit against IBM, arguably the leader in Linux promotion, and because IBM had access to both Linux and Unix source code (the latter via a license).  But then Novell filed suit against the SCO Group, claiming that it had retained the copyright when it sold Unix to the original Santa Cruz Operation.

Not to beat a dead horse, but after a number of motions, several decisions, a remand or two, and an actual trial, earlier this week a jury decided that in fact Novell did retain the copyrights.  This will certainly be appealed (it will be interesting to hear the grounds for appeal), and there are other matters to be settled, but this looks like the beginning of the end of this whole sorry mess.

Regular readers know how I feel about focusing on legal battles surrounding intellectual property versus actually being innovative.  I understand the need for a level of protection of intellectual property, but this particular situation isn’t about intellectual property, it’s about money.  First, the SCO Group didn’t create the IP under question, they bought it.  And actually, they bought a company that had itself acquired the IP.  Those who had developed actual IP (the Unix operating system) had long since been forgotten.

Second, IBM and others in the Linux community offered to remove the offending source files, if the SCO Group would simply identify them.  The company has declined to do so, even though as a matter of copyright that would largely clear things up.  Instead, it not only continued its lawsuits, but also extracted “SCOsource license” payments from a few enterprises using Linux.  This had nothing to do with innovation, and all about blackmail.  The SCO Group has little technology business (less after it initiated these lawsuits), and lawsuits have become its business strategy.

(Astute readers may notice that I take pains to refer to the plaintiff of the case formally as The SCO Group, not simply SCO.  I do that so as not to confuse it with the original and innocuous Santa Cruz Operation.)

There are those who will say that it doesn’t matter who created by IP.  But it does.  If the purpose of our patent and copyright laws is to encourage innovation, then that should be all that matters.  The legal protections are available to support innovation and the rewards that come with successful innovation, not as a tool to make money or stifle competition.

It is interesting to note that SCO gets financial backing, even in bankruptcy, from a set of companies, and not for innovation, but to continue the legal assault of Linux.  I will leave it as an exercise to the reader as to discovering who they are.

If you would like to read more about The SCO Group and its legal travails, the best place to do so is on Groklaw.

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Comments»

1. ha johe - April 4, 2010

there are a lot similarities of unix and linux, it is hard not to believe the unix code in linux. The lawsuit that novell won against before juries because the linux community has well connection with those juries, you can see the scox stock drop in the12 days of trials because the new leaking that those juries will favor for novell. This is sad when the juries can not make their right decision when be influenced by the groklaw

2. Karl Beecher - April 8, 2010

I too couldn’t believe it was seven years when I came to writing my take on the whole thing. As just as the outcome is, I suspect you’ll agree with me that this is a small but important event in the history of digital innovation and fair and open development, given the continuing behaviour of the *major* players.

3. Will We Finally See Patent Reform? « Cutting Edge Computing - June 22, 2010

[…] written on tech patents in the past.  Conceptually, the idea is certainly a good one, and one of the foundations of innovation.  But […]


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