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SCO's lawsuit is funny, but not 'ha-ha' funny

SCO's lawsuit against IBM could slow the adoption and development of Linux by major vendors

(LinuxWorld) — The shockwaves emanating from the lawsuit SCO Group filed against IBM last week continue to ripple back and forth across the entire IT community. That includes the free-software and open-source segments. How the suit will affect the future development and usage of Linux remains to be seen.

SCO Group CEO Darl C. McBride told analysts and reporters in a teleconference on Friday that "this case is not about the debate about the relative merits of the proprietary versus open-source software models. This case is also not about IBM's right to develop and promote open-source software, so long as they do that without SCO's proprietary information."

The most immediate threat of the suit to IBM is the issue of licensing for the use of Unix in AIX. Loss of that license could cause serious problems for IBM's Unix-based hardware offerings. While there is huge irony that this threat is itself silent testimony to the lunacy of the lawsuit, it's a good bet that not many IBM execs are amused.

Possible harm

Call it collateral damage if you like, but Linux stands to be harmed by the suit as well. Even if SCO's claims are not upheld, as long the possibility remains it could have a chilling effect on contributions made to Linux development from IBM and other Unix vendors, such as HP and Sun. The suit also dovetails nicely with Microsoft's plans for IP-based attacks on Linux; it might slow adoption of Linux and the development of new applications to run on Linux, as well.

In the complaint, SCO manages to make it sound as if Unix had been developed in a cleanroom, then delivered in a pristine proprietary format to commercial users without the source code ever having been viewed, shared or modified by its community of users. Quoting from the complaint: "After successful in-house use of the UNIX software, AT&T began to license UNIX as a commercial product for use in enterprise applications by other large companies."

Peter Salus, Chief Knowledge Officer at Matrix NetSystems, author of two books about the Internet and widely recognized as the unofficial historian of Unix, begs to differ with that tale. He cited the development of Unix text-editors as a prime example of the back-and-forth of open-source development in Unix from the very start.

Salus told me how the first release of Unix, in 1974, included only Ken Thompson's ed for an editor. That release found its way to Queen Mary College in London, and George Couloris modifed ed (which Salus describes as the "most user-unfriendly editor ever") into a more-usable form called em, which stood for "editor for mortals."

While on a sabbatical, Couloris visited the University of California at Berkeley and was approached by a young graduate student who asked what he was working on. Couloris told him, and the student asked if he could take a look. Two weeks later, Couloris returned from meetings with Thompson and the others at Bell Labs. He found that the student had created a new version of the editor called ex.

The student's name was Bill Joy, and the ex version became the basis for vi. ATT incorporated vi into Version 7 of Unix. The SCO "background" on Unix makes no mention of this nor dozens of other examples of how its roots were shaped in a very open-source fashion.

History lessons

But it's not just Unix history that SCO gets all-wrong in the complaint; their history of free software and Linux is fundamentally flawed as well. The following quote from the complaint will probably draw fire from Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation: "The primary purpose of the GNU organization is to create free software based on valuable commercial software. The primary operating system advanced by GNU is Linux."

But the worst is yet to come. Again, quoting from the document, SCO claims: "In order to assure that the Linux operating system (and other software) would remain free of charge and not-for-profit, GNU created a licensing agreement entitled the General Public License (GPL)."

Maybe in a time-warp somewhere deep in Salt Lake City it happened that way, but for the rest of the world, the GPL preceded Linux by several years. The GPL first appeared in 1988. Linus Torvalds started his terminal project, which later became Linux, in 1991.

Alan Cox, a leading Linux-kernel hacker from very early on, had this to say: "The only thing I take offense to is the notion that Linux people couldn't possibly build a high-quality OS without them. The core of Unix was built by a few bright people in a lab, and much of the rest by university folk working on BSD in the 1980's."

Cox has a point; the complaint notes that "prior to IBM's involvement, Linux was the software equivalent of a bicycle. UNIX was the software equivalent of a luxury car."

Having established early on in the complaint that they apparently know very little about the history of Unix and free software, SCO continues by trudging into new areas in which to display just how tenuous a grasp they have on computing in general. They claim it took SCO software engineers twenty years to produce SMP code that scales to 32 processors. Hey everybody, please don't tell them that 20 years ago, there weren't any 32-processor machines for which to write code; I want to see that spark of illumination come to them in court.

A major portion of the complaint is a giant non-sequitur, devoid of any substance whatsover. SCO seeks to show that IBM has helped Linux, which is not a terribly difficult thing to do, even for SCO. Citing IBM's expression of support for Linux and Big Blue's release of open-source printer-drivers as evidence, SCO claims IBM is trying to destroy the UNIX market.

The complaint includes quotes from Steve Mills' address at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo just held in New York City, where he said that "Linux is the obvious successor to AIX" as proof of IBM's plans to murder Unix. They ignored other statements made by IBM, such as Nick Bowen's explanation that appeared in ZDNet India on January 30, 2003.

"Steve's view is really on a multi-decade time frame," Bowen said. "Over time, Linux and Intel and Windows will catch up to where we were yesterday (with AIX). When they catch up, we'll be two steps down the road."

SCO has also conveniently forgotten a similar suit brought by ATT against the University of California at Berkeley, the birthplace of the BSD versions of Unix. In that instance, ATT quietly folded its hand and agreed to pay all of the legal expenses UC Berkeley had incurred in its defense.

SCO belittles BSD Unix in the complaint and posits that IBM's AIX came exclusively from ATT Unix. Salus pops that balloon, too; he told me by e-mail that, in a 1986 USENIX meeting, "Peter Capek of IBM Research chaired a session on UNIX on Big Iron. One of the papers, by a group at NYU, was on UNIX on the IBM RP3. That system was based on 'Version 7 (and in the future 4.3BSD) UNIX.'" In other words, IBM gained knowledge of Unix from both BSD and AT&T.

SCO somehow fails to take into account that IBM may have learned something about multi-processing and multi-user operating systems from MFT, MVT, MVS, OS/400 and probably some others I've forgotten. SCO also seems oblivious to IBM's experience with OS/2 in developing an operating system for the x86.

What's the real story?

Salus made an interesting observation when he told me, "I think it is worth pointing out that SCO has been supported and subsidized by Microsoft for many years, and that this kind of harrassing lawsuit smacks of Redmond, Washington, rather than what I think of as Santa Cruz."

Although Microsoft sold all its remaining shares in SCO in 2000, it has more to gain than anyone else from a lawsuit like this one. In one broad stroke, the suit strikes at No. 1 on Microsoft's list of enemies (Linux) and a big gun that is helping that enemy (IBM). Bruce Perens suggested elsewhere that there is also another possibility to consider: SCO filed the suit as a desperation move, hoping for a buy-out by IBM to make it go away.

Amid all this speculation, one thing is certain: unless SCO is holding its high cards very close to its chest, the suit looks like nothing more than a comedy of airs and errors. Those cards better be good cards, because based on the complaint, SCO has yet to find two cards of the same suit, let alone two of a kind.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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