SCO’s war on Linux: Should you be scared?

Canadian Linux users say they have nothing to fear from SCO’s plan to seek licensing fees from enterprises that have deployed the open source operating system.

Earlier this week SCO said it would launch a program under which it would

seek to enforce what it alleges to be its intellectual property over certain elements of the Linux kernel, which was partially developed from Unix by Linus Torvalds. The company rocked the global open source community when it made its claims in March and filed what has become a US$3 billion lawsuit against IBM, one of Linux’s biggest proponents in the vendor community.

SCO, which was formed last year when former Linux distributor Caldera brought some of the former Santa Cruz Operation’s assets, said it received copyright registrations in the United States on Monday. These will provide the basis for a licensing program of its Unixware OS that would cover binary use of Linxel based on kernel version 2.4 or higher.

In Canada, where use of Linux is on the rise in both the public and private sector, enterprise executives describe SCO’s licensing plans as an extortion attempt that they aren’t taking very seriously.

“”To me it just looks like (they’re) trying to fatten themselves up so that someone will buy them,”” said James Ramsay, IT manager with Legal Aid Manitoba, which has been using Linux for several years on its servers. If he were to be contacted by SCO about paying up, Ramsay said he would ignore it.

“”They would have to come up with something a little more substantial than just a letter. I’m sitting on about 50 lawyers here.””

Blake Stowell, SCO’s director of corporate communications based in Lindon, Utah, said the company would not seek licensing revenue from non-commercial Linux users. But Fortune 1,000 firms that use the software could be punished if they refuse to pay, he warned.

“”Companies have a lot of options,”” he said. “”They can choose to ignore the licence and possibly see an injunction where they would basically be forced to shut down their use of Linux. They can choose an operating system to use in their organization other than Linux. Or they can pay a licence and be in good standing and continue using Linux.””

Details around the licensing program, including how long companies would have to pay, have not been determined, but Stowell said the company would likely approach customers directly and then turn to its reseller channel to ferret out other Linux users.

David Skoll, president of a Canadian company called Roaring Penguin that develops software based on Linux, said customers needn’t be concerned.

“”I think it’s a publicity stunt. They’re made lots of allegations and have offered no proof,”” he said. “”Even worst-case scenario, if somebody finds some infringing code in their Linux kernel, it will be gone in 20 days. The portions that they’re claiming copyright over are very tiny.””

Earlier this year Roger Petry, a research associate with the Saskachewan office of the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives, wrote a paper that proposed the use of Linux in the provincial government. One of the issues concerned the copyright of free software, which he argued is owned by citizens. He said SCO’s plans demonstrate a dependency on patents that afflicts other firms as well.

“”Part of the problem with the IT bubble bursting is that you have a lot of companies having intellectual property that are no longer viable companies,”” he said. “”They simply switched their strategy then to try and get what they could for their IP.””

Petry said it would be difficult for SCO to go into too many details about its intellectual property claim because it could expose violations of the General Public Licence (GPL) which governs Linux.

“”The GPL specifically says that if you’re knowingly incorporating proprietary material with GPL material — you can’t do that,”” he said. “”Either they have been distributing it as GPL material — in which case everybody has a free licence — or they’ve been improperly distributing the material, in which case they have been violating the licence of all the much larger share of copyright holders.””

Linux enthusiasts like Jarrod Major, who leads the Calgary Linux Users Group, wonder what the controversy will mean for the operating system’s future growth prospects.

“”I just hope this goes away real soon,”” he said. “”I’m sure it’s making people very uneasy about the prospect of trying this supposedly unproven software. It’s quite disheartening.””

Petry disagreed, arguing that should the matter go before the courts, it might dissuade other firms from staking IP claims around the OS. “”The Linux community and governments using Linux, it only gets stronger by getting tested by this kind of thing,”” he said.

— Illustration by Robert Carter


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