Open-source experts debate SCO lawsuit

The escalating legal battle between SCO and IBM probably will not be resolved in the near future, but SCO's four-month-old...

The escalating legal battle between SCO and IBM probably will not be resolved in the near future, but SCO's four-month-old allegations continue to churn lively controversy in the open-source community.

The latest public review of the case came at the fifth annual O'Reilly Open Source Convention, as several hundred Linux and other open-source users gathered to listen to a panel of IT experts weigh in on what has become a very public fight.

Panel members said the $1bn (£610m) lawsuit filed against IBM in March by SCO is most likely a case of a former Unix market player looking to go after the richest target it could find to try to win a court award and fill its cash-starved coffers. The lawsuit has since been amended by SCO to ask for more than $3bn (£1.8m) in damages.

The problem, according to panelist Lawrence Rosen, a technology attorney at Rosenlaw & Einschlag, is that the case is still far from going to trial, meaning that much of what has so far been discussed about its merits is "way premature".

"We need to wait until the evidence comes out" and then allow the case to unfold through motions, briefs and an eventual ruling from the court, Rosen said.

Even with that caveat, Rosen and the other panelists - Alan Nugent, chief technology officer at Novell; Bradley Kuhn, executive director of the Free Software Foundation and Chris DiBona, vice-president of marketing at game software maker Damage X - took turns talking about the SCO suit.

"We're committed to helping the open-source community get over this," said Novell's Nugent. "We believe it is groundless."

For Novell, the case against IBM hits close to home. Novell, which had previously acquired the Unix systems business of AT&T, broke up and sold its Unix properties in 1994 and 1995.

One of those deals was with the former Operation, which was bought by Caldera International and later became The SCO Group.

In May, Novell's chief executive officer and president, Jack Messman, publicly called on SCO to lay out its alleged evidence that IBM had illegally put protected SCO Unix code into Linux.

Because of the lawsuit and his company's past dealings with Unix, Nugent said he couldn't discuss all of the details of the complex transactions that had taken place between Novell and SCO years ago. But, he added, "the things that are probably most important are not necessarily things that will help SCO's position".

Last month, SCO carried out its lawsuit-related threat to pull IBM's Unix licence because IBM failed to comply with SCO's demands to meet the alleged terms of its licensing agreement.

The Free Software Foundation's Kuhn said in May that SCO was still offering copies of its own Linux distribution on its FTP website, which he said negates SCO's claim that Linux has been illegally offered with protected SCO Unix code.

"If it turns out that SCO has a claim [in the IBM case]... then they have themselves released that very software under the GPL [General Public License]," Kuhn said. "There's really no claim whatsoever."

Also troubling, Kuhn said, was last month's announcement that Microsoft paid an undisclosed amount of money to SCO for a Unix licence, the result of Microsoft's stated desire to ensure that its products comply with SCO's intellectual property claims regarding Unix.

Microsoft in the past has "identified the GPL as their biggest competitor and enemy", Kuhn said.

The licensing deal, he argued, was less about wanting to suddenly assure compliance with SCO's Unix claims as much as an attempt to "make things look bad for the GPL. We still think Linux is pretty solid as it stands", Kuhn said.

Damage X's DiBona stressed that for SCO, the merits of the case were unimportant from the start.

"This lawsuit came because of financial reasons," DiBona said. "They sued IBM because IBM has the money."

Todd R Weiss wrties for Computerworld

Read more on IT risk management