SCO fly, don't bother me

If The SCO Group's original $1 billion law suit filed in March didn't get IBM's attention, the amended complaint filed last week seeking three times the damages and an injunction prohibiting the sale of AIX might have done the trick.

SCO apparently is pursuing the case - in which it alleges IBM took SCO's Unix code and spilled it into Linux - because it realizes it is easier to generate a profit nailing down intellectual property rights than selling software. The company has created a whole division, SCOsource, to do nothing but chase Unix licensing revenue.

And it's working. For the quarter that ended April 30, SCO reported its first ever quarterly profit of $4.5 million, largely on the strength of two SCOsource licensing agreements.

Does SCO have a case with IBM? Read the SCO document, and it sounds fairly solid. IBM isn't talking much, but read the OSI Position Paper on the SCO-vs.-IBM Complaint by Eric Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, and the suit sounds like a house of cards.

While Raymond disavows knowledge of IBM's contractual dealings with SCO, he knows the history of Unix and discusses it at length. Two of his important points: 1) Unix is actually a family of operating systems "with common design elements" (raising questions about whether SCO can lay claim to all of them); and 2) any rights SCO has to Unix "had been substantially impaired" before SCO acquired them by a lawsuit in the early 1990s (raising questions about this whole thing being moot).

The history of Unix is so tangled that it will be hard to discern who contributed what intellectual property when and who has subsequent rights. And whether you believe SCO or IBM or Raymond, the chances are that proprietary code has been mixed into Unix somewhere along the line. Whether that code is pertinent to this case and causes it to swing one way or another remains to be seen.

But the case does serve as a reminder that, benefits aside, open source products occasionally might be entangled in this kind of mess. It is more important than ever to document the origins of open source code and research its roots.

Sadly, regardless of the outcome of the SCO suit, the legal wrangling will take time to resolve and the open source community likely will lose some momentum, if not get something of a permanent black eye. And that's a shame.

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