Linux under threat

On May 12, SCO, the company that ‘holds the rights to the UNIX operating system’, sent out a letter to its customers claiming that the Linux operating system is an ‘unauthorised derivative’ of UNIX.

On May 12, SCO, the company that holds the rights to the UNIX operating system, sent out a letter to its customers claiming that the Linux operating system is an ‘unauthorised derivative’ of UNIX.

‘Many Linux contributors were originally UNIX developers who had access to UNIX source code distributed by AT&T and were subject to confidentiality agreements, including confidentiality of the methods and concepts involved in software design. We have evidence that portions of UNIX System V software code have been copied into Linux and that additional other portions of UNIX System V software code have been modified and copied into Linux, seemingly for the purposes of obfuscating their original source,’ the letter said.

SCO believes that Linux infringes on its UNIX intellectual property and other rights, and, according to the letter, ‘intends to aggressively protect and enforce these rights.’

On March 7, SCO initiated legal action against IBM for alleged unfair competition and breach of contract ‘with respect to its UNIX rights’. The case is pending in the Utah Federal District Court.

This itself caused a number of protests. One of the more vocal sceptics was Eric Raymond, the President of the Open Source Initiative. He said that SCO’s complaint (against IBM) implied claims about SCO’s business and technical capabilities that were simply untrue.

‘The legal action,’ he wrote on the OSI web site, ‘is very cleverly crafted to deceive a reader without intimate knowledge of the technology and history of Unix. It gives false impressions by both the suppression of relevant facts, the ambiguous suggestion of falsehoods, and in a few instances by outright lying.’ Raymond’s complete dissertation regarding the suit can be found on the OSI web site.

Nevertheless, SCO has also now suspended its own Linux-related activities ‘until the issues surrounding Linux intellectual property and the attendant risks are better understood and properly resolved.’

Needless to say, Matthew Szulik, Red Hat Chairman, CEO and President, in an open letter back to SCO, had something to say about the whole affair.

‘We respect and take effort to maintain the legal and technical integrity of valid intellectual property, including patents, copyright and trademark. When the integrity of the Red Hat brand is publicly called into question, we will defend the use of Red Hat Enterprise Linux by our customers,’ he said.

The other big Linux name, SuSE, said that it would continue to honour all commitments to its UnitedLinux product to customers and partners, regardless of any actions that SCO may take or even allegations they may make. UnitedLinux was itself jointly designed and developed by SuSE Linux, Turbolinux, Conectiva and SCO.

SuSE added that it felt that the SCO’s actions were ‘curious’, stating that it had asked SCO for clarification of their public statements, but that SCO had declined to respond. The company added that SCO had not made any attempt to make it aware of any specific unauthorised code in any SuSE Linux product.

The news comes as two major industry players – Microsoft and Sun Microsystems – have made their positions clear on which side of the UNIX/Linux divide they sit. Microsoft is to license SCO’s UNIX OS patents and source code, while Sun Microsystems has formed an alliance with Red Hat to support Linux OS on Sun platforms.