Enterprise Unix Roundup — SCO Goes Back to the IP Future

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Jul 22, 2004

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Now that its shot across the enterprise bow has backfired, SCO is trying intellectual property time travel to stay in the litigation game. Sun's earnings presented a mixed bag. Sharing printers among Unix, Linux, and Windows users? Consider CUPS.

We were all set to open this week's column with a colorful composite character — someone we were going to name "Davey McBird." We were going to create an anecdote wherein Davey McBird rented us his lawn mower for a few weeks, then took us to small claims court for stealing it when we wouldn't post a daily picture of it on the Internet so he could be sure it was all right and still in our garage. But who would believe a story like that?

Apparently not Judge Rae Lee Chabot, who tossed SCO's suit against DaimlerChrysler out the window on all but one count, which was the question of why it took the automotive company more than 30 days to report to SCO that it hadn't used SCO software for more than seven years.

Suing customers makes potential customers nervous. Loudly suing a customer that then loudly announces it hasn't used your software since before the Internet Bubble is just embarrassing.

At this point in the alternate narrative we never got around to writing, Davey McBird is standing on the steps of small claims court with little birds and planets circling his head; he screws up his dignity (like a Mike Royko character, who always had a sort of tragic dignity, even at his most wrong) and wags a finger under our noses, exclaiming, "but still!"

Which is exactly what we got from SCO spokesman Blake Stowell who, internetnews.com reports, "said the ruling wasn't unexpected and leaves the door open for the company's lawyers to look into why it took so long for DaimlerChrysler to send the certification letter."

Kind of like Ahab with the whole "for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee" business. Or Davey McBird waggling his imaginary finger and saying "But still!"

The long and short being: DaimlerChrysler was part of SCO's overall strategy of getting people to take its licenses seriously and possibly setting enterprises up for horrendous grief if they also dared to bring Linux into their operations, and that suit is now dead.

One could hear champagne corks popping in Linux-land Wednesday afternoon, although the case doesn't represent vindication so much as it does a setback for SCO. As we just noted, DaimlerChrysler hasn't used SCO software in seven years, so failing to certify its compliance with a dust-gathering license when there was probably a mad dash around the DaimlerChrysler offices to figure out who the heck SCO is and where they'd left the old boxes in the first place probably didn't seem like the most egregious intellectual property trespass the judge had ever seen.

SCO should probably be relieved: Suing customers makes potential customers nervous. Loudly suing a customer that then loudly announces it hasn't used your software since before the Internet Bubble is just embarrassing.

Melville - 1, Kafka - 0.

On the other hand, SCO this week added some detail to its case against IBM.

According to a report, SCO's latest filings in that case include a statement from its VP of engineering, who maintains that Linux includes SCO's Executable and Linking Format (ELF) code. ELF is, in a nutshell, key to the way executables (programs) and objects are compiled in Linux and multiple other Unix variants (including Irix, Solaris, and the BSDs).

ELF rose to dominance in the Linux world in the mid '90s as a replacement for the a.out binary format as developers began to recognize the need for better ways to manage shared libraries and cross-compiled binaries. The transition wasn't particularly easy, but by 1999 the author of the Linux Documentation Project's GCC HOWTO, a document detailing how to use the GNU project's C compiler, said the transition was "long past."

ELF came out of Unix System Laboratories. It started life as a company in 1991, the same year Linus Torvalds began work on the Linux kernel. An industry consortium introduced ELF as a standard in 1995, offering it under a "non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free license." SCO now says that even though it was a member of that consortium, the license was inappropriately granted.

That move, along with several other specific claims (including one that says the Linux init program, which is responsible for booting and powering down a Linux system, is copied from Unix, and another stating the IBM-contributed JFS file system is a derivative work), changes SCO's Carl-Sagan-like claims of "millyuns and millyuns" of lines of copied code. Now, the vendor is edging closer to claiming that Linux, to the extent it's a Unix variant, is a Unix variant, AKA a derivative work.

Having learned the value of silence after months and months of abuse and investor threats about its bellicose public posturing, SCO is playing its cards a little closer to its chest this round.

The flavor of issues the company is striking at is not new to open source developers, however. In late 2001, the open source community rallied against the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) when it considered introducing a policy of allowing "Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory Licensing" (RAND) into Web standards that it's responsible for approving. Under RAND licenses, enterprises developing intellectual property surrounding a particular Web technology could charge for implementation of that technology in Web-related software.

The move was fine with commercial software houses, which trade patents and IP like baseball cards. However, independent open source and free software projects found it more troubling, as they saw RAND as a way to lock them out of developing competitive Web browsers. SCO's current move is an apparent attempt, at least in the case of its claims on ELF, to go back to the past and retroactively push Linux away from the table by closing a standard presented as open for nearly a decade.

If the move works, the Linux world might have a mess on its hands, since switching binary and library formats isn't exactly easy. Plenty of folks have their doubts about whether SCO really has a leg to stand on, and they are interpreting the move as a way for the vendor to back away from the unsubstantiatable claims of wholesale copying.

With its DaimlerChrysler case in the trash can and its Autozone case on hold, SCO has to do something to allow its one remaining in-play case look viable if it has any hope of jump starting its stalled and apparently doomed licensing program.

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