SCO Update: Users Say They'll Stay the Course

Though SCO disclosed examples of copyrighted code in Linux, most users were unimpressed, and few say they'll change their plans—for now.

The SCO Group rattled its sabers again last week, confirming for the first time that it had compiled a list of all of the large companies running Linux.

SCO CEO Darl McBride made the disclosure just prior to the start of his company’s SCO Forum 2003 user conference, which took place last week in Las Vegas.

SCO provided details about several new products at this year’s conference, but it was the company’s decision to release snippets of code it claims was illegally copied into Linux that took center stage.

During a keynote address last Monday, Chris Sontag, SCO senior VP and GM of SCO’s SCOSource IP licensing initiative, showed several slides of code that SCO claims has been illegally copied into Linux. Sontag reiterated SCO’s claim that Linux could not have matured as rapidly as it did without the illegal copying of Unix code: “A number of entities have violated their contracts and contributed inappropriate code to Linux. That's how Linux has advanced so quickly and found its way into the enterprise so soon," he said.

In addition to the line-by-line and serial copying of original Unix source code and comments that his company alleges, Sontag reiterated SCO’s contention that thousands of lines of derivative works—i.e., those built on top of the original Unix code—have been illegally incorporated into Linux.

Sontag was joined onstage by Mark Heise, a partner with the firm of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, LLP, which is handling the case for SCO. Both Sontag and Heise reiterated SCO’s argument that IBM's 1984 Unix license with AT&T gave SCO control over derivative work that was developed on top of Unix.

By “derivative works,” Sontag and Heise cited non-uniform memory access (NUMA), symmetric multiprocessing (SMP), the journaling file system (JFS), the extended file system (XFS), and read-copy update (RCU) features.

Sontag said Linux customers could stop using Linux altogether, roll-back their Linux systems to version 2.2 (or earlier) of the Linux kernel, switch platforms altogether, or opt for the new Intellectual Property License for Linux that SCO unveiled earlier this month. For his part, Heise reminded attendees that SCO could pursue customers that are running Linux without a valid SCO license and obtain an injunction to block their use of the operating environment, along with seeking financial damages.

Users Says It's Business as Usual

We spoke last week with more than a dozen users of Big Iron Linux, nearly all of whom were highly critical of the merits of SCO’s case. Most said that they had no intention of purchasing SCO’s Linux IP license, and nearly all expressed optimism that IBM – and, by extension, open source software and the GNU General Public License (GPL)—will prevail in the end. Most, however, acknowledge that they’re still in the testing phase of their Big Iron Linux deployments, and, as a result, haven’t yet had to confront the spectre of litigation from an increasingly combative SCO.

“Although our CIO officially says that we're in a "wait and see" mode, that hasn't stopped our Linux development,” says a mainframe systems programmer with a major retail chain. “We're continuing down the path that we invested in two years ago. SCO's license threat hasn't been a question here. Besides, we have a GPL license from SuSE and another from Linuxcare. Our lawyers have read the material we forwarded them and agree that until something major happens, we should stay the course.”

David Andrews, a systems programmer with a national produce distributor, says that his company doesn’t use Big Iron Linux to support mission-critical applications. As a result, he speculates, it’s unlikely that it will spend money on SCO’s Linux IP licenses.

“SCO’s actions have not affected our ‘strategy’ as such, but our use of GNU/Linux is still rather informal. Fewer than one percent of our computers run it, and those applications are not what we would call mission-critical,” he comments. “It is unlikely that we'd pony up the bucks for a spurious license to operate GPL-ed software—especially at the rates I've seen quoted in the press.”

If push comes to shove, this systems programmer says, he could easily move his company’s existing investments in GNU/Linux technologies to another platform—such as FreeBSD. “In any case, we have few enough mission-critical things running on GNU/Linux so that conversion is possible. Note that conversion doesn't have to be to a Microsoft platform! I just relocated a FreeBSD Web server the other day that had 611 days of continuous uptime. Open Source still wins.”

Among shops that have actually deployed mainframe Linux in support of production systems, there are some indications of mild concern. At least one respondent declined to be interviewed for the purposes of this article, saying that he was unable to discuss the subject – even anonymously.

Other production users of Big Iron Linux, some with companies or organizations that could potentially be targeted if SCO decides to press its attack against Linux users, seem undeterred, however.

A systems programmer with a state government says that as far as he knows, his organization still plans to move a major system from Hewlett-Packard Co.’s HP-UX operating environment to Big Iron Linux over the next few months. “We are currently hosting a couple of fairly small databases that are not mission-critical on the system. We are planning to move our child welfare system from HP-UX [to mainframe Linux] sometime [in] mid-November,” he comments. “I know that there has been discussion of [potential SCO litigation] at higher levels in our organization, but I don't know to what extent.”

Among potential fence-sitters—those that aren’t testing or deploying, but merely evaluating a move to Big Iron Linux—there’s a possibility that SCO’s threats could make them think twice about deploying GNU/Linux solutions. “For conservative companies like the one I work for – [which] has not yet bought into Linux—it may mean we won't run Linux,” acknowledges a systems programmer with a large North American insurance company. “[B]ecause we [do] not yet have a LINUX strategy … I don't think we would consider a Linux license from SCO. We'd just choose to not run Linux.”

Users Underwhelmed

Although SCO purported to bolster its case by disclosing selections of code that it claims have been illegally copied into Linux, the users that we spoke with seemed underwhelmed with the company’s smoking gun.

Like many of his colleagues, James Melin, a systems programmer with a county government that uses Big Iron Linux in a limited fashion, has some sharp words for SCO. “They can sue companies until the cows come home. Unless and until it is proven in a court of law that Linux infringes on SCO-held code, and that the GPL is invalid, and that IBM was responsible for putting that code in, they are not licensing, they are racketeering. They are more or less doing a shakedown of companies for 'protection,’” he argues.

A systems programmer with a large Canadian municipality agrees. “I have been reading as much as I can on this, and based on what I have read I think that SCO does not have a case,” he comments, adding that he wondered if the SEC should investigate the action as one designed to manipulate the stock price. At least one of the smoking gun examples that SCO touted to users and resellers at SCO Forum has already been placed into question, if not debunked. A German news service published several slide images ( of code that SCO claims has been illegally copied into Linux. Advocates at an open source discussion forum say that the code in question carries a copyright from Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) (—and that near-identical variations of the same code have also appeared in several Unix textbooks.

Moreover, claims open source advocate Bruce Perens, the same code has already been made available under the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) license, and may have been the subject of litigation between Berkeley Software Design Inc. and Unix Systems Laboratory, which provided the legal foundation for the BSD variants of Unix.

If SCO is pressing a copyright case based on generic bits of code, systems programmer Melin doesn’t think that it has much legal ground to stand on. “If I had tried to copyright [code in a generic BASIC program] in 1979 when I had my TRS-80 … could I really expect to sue every student on earth who did something remotely similar? No. It wouldn't stand,” he concludes.