SCO sues its first Linux user

US Auto parts chain AutoZone has become the first Linux user face legal action from SCO for violating its Unix copyrights through...

US Auto parts chain AutoZone has become the first Linux user face legal action from SCO for violating its Unix copyrights through its use of Linux.

SCO has threatened to sue Linux users in the past, and is involved in Linux-related lawsuits with IBM, Red Hat and Novell. But until now, it had not launched legal action against a Linux customer.

The company sued IBM in March 2003, claiming that IBM illegally contributed SCO's intellectual property to the Linux source code.

It has since claimed that Linux contains code copied directly from the AT&T Unix software SCO acquired in 2000, and has warned Linux users they could be sued unless they purchase $699-per-server software licences from SCO.

The suit against AutoZone asks for injunctive relief and damages to be determined in a trial.

SCO's critics said that the company has yet to prove its case, and that SCO's licence, called the Intellectual Property License for Linux, amounts to little more than extortion.

In November, SCO claimed to be just 90 days away from launching a lawsuit against an end user, but the deadline passed without a suit having been filed.

The company was late in filing the suit because it had hoped to settle with customers before bringing litigation, said Blake Stowell, an SCO spokesman.

"Our hope as a company was that litigation would be a last resort," he said. "In the end, I think we took a little bit more time to work things through with customers rather than go ahead with litigation."

Although SCO is engaged in lawsuits with Linux distributors Red Hat and Novell, it has not sued either company over the alleged copyright violations.

When asked why his company had decided to sue end users rather than Linux distributors, Stowell said,  "If we did that, in some cases it could really hurt Linux, which is not necessarily something we want to do as a company. If you go and sue a Linux distributor, that could, potentially, hurt the Linux marketplace."

If Linux does illegally contain SCO's copyrighted code, the company could have a copyright infringement case against Linux users, because users inevitably copy software when they use computers, said Jeffrey Neuberger, a partner with Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner. 

"If you buy something preinstalled on your hard drive, you're making a copy of that by installing your software into Ram," he said.

Should SCO prove its case, the company could seek statutory damages that range anywhere from $200 per infringement to $150,000 per infringement, Neuberger said.

Lawsuits against Linux customers could also further SCO's case against IBM, which was recently amended to include copyright infringement claims.

The suit could also create liabilities for SCO, he added.

"If their lawsuit isn't well founded, they could, at a minimum, be subject to sanctions. If IBM feels that the SCO claim isn't well founded, they could actually sue SCO for tortious interference."

Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service

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