SCO Goes Nuclear

Posted by Eric Mon, 10 Mar 2003 00:00:00 GMT

SCO is making all sorts of outrageous claims about Linux, planning to revoke IBM's AIX license in 100 days, filing misleading court paperwork, and making dramatic but improbable claims to the press. What are they thinking?

Claims vs. Reality

SCO's claim (paraphrased): "The original AT&T Unix code--upon which Solaris, AIX, etc., are based--is extremely valuable, insightful code. Without this code, neither Linus Torvalds nor IBM could figure out how to write a scalable operating system. Since Linux is a scalable operating system--and it runs most Unix software--Linux must therefore contain tons of illicit Unix source code. Somebody owes us money."

The reality: The original Unix code hasn't been updated much since the early 80's, when Sun, IBM, etc., licensed it from AT&T. It's not a particularly good operating system--anybody remember Unix around 1985? It sucked. The original AT&T Unix wasn't scalable, reliable, or suitable to modern machines. Furthermore, any bright ideas in Unix were public knowledge in the 70's, and most of the Unix-related patents have long since expired.

SCO's claim should be: "We own the rights to a crappy, archaic version of Unix--whose source code was sloppily licensed to thousands of people--and we bet somebody, somewhere has slipped up and included a miniscule amount of this crappy code in Linux. We won't tell you where this code is; we'll just make vague allegations and scare people into paying us off."

Any Contamination Of Linux Is Small

Now, it's almost certain that one of the thousands of people with a Unix source license later worked on some part of Linux. After all, when AT&T filed suit over Berkeley's BSD (another Unix clone), 73 out of 18,000 files were found to be contaminated after years of court battles.

IBM's contributions to Linux have been kept small and localized, and all but a few were brand-new code, written specifically for Linux.

SCO May Be Contaminated, Too

Similarly, portions of SCO's products are almost certainly contaminated with small amounts GPL'd code--device drivers and utility routines are the most suspect. Every large software vendor has at least one dishonest engineer on staff, somebody who's happy to include other people's code into a product.

Such violations are typically handled quietly and without any attempt at getting damages. SCO's possible violations, on the other hand, will most likely be handled with the same generous spirit SCO is currently showing the Linux community.

SCO's "Expertise" Wasn't Needed

The Linux community and IBM are perfectly capable of building a scalable Intel-based operating system without mystical insights provided by SCO engineers. The original Unix kernel--which SCO owns--was not very good, even by the standards of the late 80's, and the average Unix vendor spent tens of millions of dollars getting it to scale. The Linux community, on the other hand, contains dozens of skilled kernel enginers, including experts from Oracle. IBM's non-Unix expertise is also considerable; they're written many scalable operating systems, including OS/360, zOS and OS/2.

Linux's compatibility with Unix APIs did not require Unix code, either--the Unix APIs are government purchasing standards, and they're quite well documented.

SCO Wants Fear and Money, Not Compliance

SCO won't name the "contaminated" files in Linux, because (a) SCO probably doesn't know which files are contaminated and (b) the contaminated files would be removed or rewritten within days. Instead, SCO will try to spread massive fear, in hopes of extracting payoffs from gullible coporate Linux users.

Forbes: Asked if [SCO] had physical evidence that its proprietary technologies had been shared with the open source community, McBride begged off, saying evidence would come out at trial.

SCO's Software Businesses are Dead, Dead, Dead

Let's see what SCO has earned itself:

  • SCO has earned the undying hatred of the Linux community. That press release was personal.
  • SCO has earned themselves an incredibly thorough audit for GPL violations, with none of the standard mercy shown to most violators. The GPL has some well-known clauses which could contaminate SCO's IP, and some little-known clauses which might block their distribution of major Linux components entirely.
  • SCO has earned the wrath of IBM legal, one of the most dangerous legal departments on the planet, with the largest software patent portfolio. Personally, I'd rather annoy Disney than IBM legal. They're not very nice people to cross.

Obviously, SCO had better be planning to exit the software business, and survive off lawyers and lawsuits. By "going nuclear" against IBM and Linux, they've ensured massive legal and PR retaliation against any software they ship. The only safe solution: Stop shipping software entirely.

Linux Will Emerge Wounded But Alive

SCO's only weapons are a small amount of unspecified source code contamination, and bad PR for Linux.

The Linux community can either remove the contaminated source code, or replace entire subsystems (you know how the Linux community always builds two of everything?).

The Linux developers are probably looking at a few months of programming and some bad PR. We'll see what happens.

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