Facts and effects of Caldera/SCO vs IBM

Microsoft may be the only winner in SCO's lawsuit against IBM and the open source ideal.

Microsoft may be the only winner in SCO's lawsuit against IBM and the open source ideal.

Last week I wrote about the rather ironic historical background to Caldera/SCO's lawsuit against IBM, and the fact that the company behind the legal moves was one of the earliest supporters of GNU/Linux.

In this context, the detailed complaint is an extraordinary document. Some of its claims are amusing: "Prior to IBM's involvement, Linux was the software equivalent of a bicycle. Unix was the software equivalent of a luxury car. To make Linux good enough for use by enterprise customers, it must be redesigned so that it also becomes the software equivalent of a luxury car."

The idea that operating systems are the equivalent of petrol-guzzling limousines, presumably complete with TVs and cocktail bars, gives an interesting insight into SCO's design philosophy.

Amusement aside, some of the document's statements are just plain wrong: "The primary purpose of the GNU organisation is to create free software based on valuable commercial software. The primary operating system advanced by GNU is Linux."

The founder of the GNU project and the associated Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, intentionally never looked at Unix code, and used only its published interfaces. The operating system that GNU advances is built around the Hurd kernel even though the GNU/ Linux combination is used more widely.

The document goes on to say, "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." In fact, the first GNU GPL was formulated in 1985 to protect the Emacs program written by Stallman. Linus Torvalds only started coding what became his Linux kernel in 1991.

These are inaccuracies of fact; more profound are the mischaracterisations of the whole open source process. "As long as the Linux development process remained unco-ordinated and random, it posed little or no threat to SCO, or to other Unix vendors."

This shows a deep ignorance of the entire distributed development approach of open source software that is its greatest strength. The implication that when IBM came along it was able to co-ordinate the "random" coding betrays a complete lack of knowledge as to how the free software community functions.

Following on the heels of this kind of error, it is no surprise that the crucial argument that is designed to bolster SCO's case against IBM manages to top everything that has come before by combining inaccuracy with insult: "It is not possible for Linux to rapidly reach Unix performance standards for complete enterprise functionality without the misappropriation of Unix code, methods or concepts to achieve such performance, and co-ordination by a larger developer, such as IBM."

This conveniently ignores 20 years of open source innovation, to say nothing of the whole history and ethos of free software.

The underlying idea is close in spirit to comments directed towards the hacker community many years ago: "Most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?" Those words were written in 1976 by Bill Gates in his famous "open letter to hobbyists". Back then, they had little effect, but today his company is already benefiting from SCO's action.

Microsoft sees its main rival, IBM, faced with a potentially costly and damaging lawsuit. It finds the Unix world once again plunging into internecine struggle - precisely the situation that first allowed Windows NT to make inroads into the enterprise. But most of all, seeds of doubt are being sown about the legal position of GNU/Linux, however unjustified, and in a way that no blame can be attached to Microsoft.
This was last published in April 2003



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