Gartner to Linux Users: Caveat Emptor

Research giant cautions users on Linux

Although the SCO Group has yet to disclose any proof of its claim that IBM Corp. misappropriated its proprietary Unix code, analyst firm Gartner Inc. last week warned enterprise customers that have deployed Linux not to be caught off-guard.

Also last week, the Open Source Initiative (OSI) published an updated attack ( against SCO’s claims, delving into the embattled company’s history with OSS and revisiting the often-tortured history of Unix.

Recently, SCO upped the ante in its battle with IBM—sending notes to 1,500 companies warning them that they could be liable for running Linux. The embattled company claims that it has identified specific instances in which its proprietary Unix IP has been improperly implemented in the Linux source code

In a research note released last week, Gartner analyst George Weiss acknowledged that his firm has doubts about the merits of SCO’s case. At the same time, Weiss allowed that SCO probably won’t retreat from its threats, and speculated that the embattled company faced one of three potential futures: It will win financially lucrative statements, get acquired by IBM, or face gradual decline.

Although some industry watchers have downplayed SCO’s threat to enterprise users of Linux, Weiss pointed out that Linux distributors such as Red Hat Inc. have safety clauses that protect them against liability from customers. This would leave enterprise customers holding the bag should SCO choose to pursue its claims against companies that have deployed Linux.

In an interview last week, Chris Sontag, senior VP and GM of SCO’s SCOSource intellectual property licensing division, warned customers to “Seek the opinion of legal counsel, get your own counsel to take a look at the Linux licenses you have, and see where the liability resides.”

Sontag also pointedly refused to rule out action against companies that are running Linux.

For those looking forward to a settlement between IBM and SCO, Weiss points out that this would not indemnify enterprise customers who are running Linux.

Gartner expects that SCO hopes to force a buy-out by Big Blue. Failing that, Weiss speculates, SCO expects to derive a steady stream of revenue from enterprise customers who pay royalties for the alleged Unix elements in the open source operating system.

Gartner has taken the unusual step of suggesting customers minimize the importance of Linux in complex or mission-critical systems until SCO discloses evidence in support of its claims, or until there’s a judgment on the matter. The research firm also suggested that companies should perform due diligence on Linux—i.e., inspect the source code and attempt to verify its integrity—and consult with their legal departments before deployment. For customers deploying Linux on systems provided by major vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp., Gartner advises customers seek comprehensive support contracts from these vendors.

In an amendment to a position paper on the IBM-SCO fracas that was first published on its Web site in March, OSI shifted its attack on SCO’s claims into overdrive. To that end, OSI President Eric S. Raymond claimed that the history of the ownership of Unix is anything but clear cut, arguing that after 1975, much of the work on Unix took place outside of Bell Labs, especially at the University of California, Berkeley and elsewhere in the academic world.

The upshot, Raymond concludes, is that SCO is asserting rights to a body of code that it did nothing to create. “We wrote our Unix and Linux code as a gift and an expression of art, to be enjoyed by our peers and used by others for all licit purposes both non-profit and for-profit. We did not write it to have it appropriated by men so dishonorable that after making profit from our gift for eight years they could turn around and insult our competence.”

The Wall Street Journal Tuesday night reported on another new wrinkle in the IBM-SCO imbroglio, disclosing that Novell Inc. was planning to assert its ownership of Unix patents and copyrights. Contrary to SCO, the Journal reported that Novell did not plan to assert these rights, however.

SCO has asserted that it is the sole owner of all Unix patents and copyrights.

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About the Author

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