SCO, IBM Wrangle over Unix, Open Source

SCO sues Big Blue for $1 billion; HP, Sun reassure customers

The SCO Group last week announced a $1 billion lawsuit against IBM Corp. for allegedly sharing SCO’s proprietary technology with the open source software (OSS) community.

SCO also claims to have warned Big Blue in a letter that if IBM doesn’t address its concerns, SCO will revoke its Unix license within 100 days. The implications of this move are unclear for IBM’s AIX installed base, but some industry watchers concede it could at least temporarily prevent IBM from shipping AIX.

“That’s exceedingly unlikely, however,” stresses Rob Enderle, a senior analyst with Forrester Research subsidiary Giga Information Group.

Even more nebulous are the implications of SCO’s gambit with respect to Linux. SCO’s suit specifically charges IBM with attempting to “improperly destroy the economic value of UNIX” by misappropriating “confidential and proprietary information” that it obtained from SCO when the two companies collaborated on the ill-fated Project Monterey, an effort to develop a 64-bit Unix operating system for Intel Corp.’s Itanium microprocessor. In May 2001, SCO alleges that IBM reneged on the Project Monterey agreement.

The upshot, SCO charges, is that IBM’s misappropriation of its proprietary Unix source code accelerated Linux development to the economic detriment of Unix on Intel-based processors: “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.”

Not surprisingly, IBM on Friday released a statement in which it dismissed SCO’s suit as “full of bare allegations with no supporting facts.” Moreover, an IBM spokesperson pointed out that Big Blue has been “openly supporting Linux and open standards for several years,” and that prior to this point, neither SCO nor its predecessor companies (Caldera Systems Inc., Novell Inc.) had expressed any concerns about it.

Through a complex sequence of events, SCO is the sole inheritor of the original Unix intellectual property that AT&T Labs first developed in the late 1960’s. The company says that all major commercial Unix operating systems in use today are based on the Unix System V source code, the rights of which are owned by SCO.

Major Unix licensees, including Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., Silicon Graphics Inc. and IBM, market operating systems that have been radically modified from the Unix System V source code. Even here, however, the history gets complicated. The operating environment that Sun today markets as Solaris, for example, is based on a synthesis of its BSD-based SunOS and Unix System V (at the time, Release 4). But starting in 1988, Sun itself collaborated with AT&T on the development of System V R4.

At this point, it’s not clear how much of the Unix System V code is still in Solaris, AIX or HP-UX, among other Unix flavors. Some analysts speculate that only interface support, along with support for the Unix System V libraries, is still extant in any of these commercial Unix operating environments.

Open Source Implications

In a complaint filed in the State Court of Utah, SCO takes specific issue with a promise that it says IBM made to “open source any part of AIX that the Linux community considers valuable.” The company claims that IBM isn’t in a position to expose SCO’s proprietary Unix source code and libraries to the Linux community, and cites several examples in which IBM is alleged to have made AIX code available as OSS. SCO’s implication is that some of this code is based on, or otherwise contains snippets of, its own Unix code or software libraries.

During a Friday press conference, SCO CEO Darl McBride wouldn’t confirm that SCO has concrete evidence that this is the case, however.

McBride insisted that his company’s actions were not specifically targeted at Linux. “This case is not about the Linux community or us going after them. This is not about the open-source community or about UnitedLinux, of whom [sic] we are members and partners.”

Instead, McBride claimed that SCO’s litigation “is only about IBM and the contractual violations that we are alleging IBM has made and that we are going to enforce.” In this regard, McBride contradicted IBM’s claim that SCO hadn’t first approached it with its concerns. Instead, he said, his company has been talking with Big Blue about these issues since late last year.

Nevertheless, industry watchers such as Giga’s Enderle say that SCO’s action is precisely about Linux. “They appear to be really serious about really challenging the underlying foundation of Linux.”

Enderle on Friday happened to be on the Redmond, Wash. campus of Microsoft Corp.—certainly no friend of Linux or OSS. While he stopped short of saying that the software giant was delighted about SCO’s new gambit, he did concede that some of the Microsoft representatives with whom he spoke were watching the case. “It does interest them greatly because they have a rather substantial amount of intellectual property that they believe may be violated as well. So they’re more than happy to let SCO explore the limits and do a lot of the heavy lifting on this.”

That cuts to the core of the issue, he suggests: “We’re going down a path where we’re going to start testing some of the Linux core intellectual property, as companies like SCO test their claims to that. The overall Linux model has never been tested in court, and it looks like SCO is on the aggressive path to do so.”

So far SCO hasn’t indicated whether it will pursue its claims against other vendors. It’s a sure bet, however, that if the company prevails in its litigation against IBM, it will look for intellectual property cases elsewhere. Last week, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. sought to reassure customers with statements that addressed SCO’s action.

Sun, for its part, announced that “it has absolutely no licensing issues with SCO today. Sun's previous licensing agreements give Sun complete UNIX IP rights in relation to Sun's operating systems.” An HP representative made a similar announcement.

Long Shot

SCO’s suit is propounded on several dubious claims, such as that “Virtually none of [the Linux developers] had access to enterprise-scale equipment and testing facilities for Linux development.”

Similarly, the company’s complaint filing contends that “the only way … for Linux to achieve the scalability, SMP support, fail-over capabilities and reliability of UNIX is by the improper extraction, use, and dissemination of the proprietary and confidential UNIX Software Code and libraries.” Analysts say that SCO will have an uphill battle proving this claim, in particular, in court.

SCO also cites the fact that IBM’s Linux technology center is headquartered in the same building that once housed its Unix technology center as proof that a “team of IBM programmers is improperly extracting and using SCO’s Unix technology” to support its Linux efforts.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.