Operating systems vendor The SCO Group rarely makes waves, but three weeks ago it rocked the boats of Linux users and vendors.
Although no one fell overboard and the sea is relatively calm now, many are watching SCO, concerned it could unleash a storm on users and vendors that have grown fond of the peaceful Linux waters.
On January 22, SCO made headlines with its announcement that it had hired firecracker attorney David Boies and his law firm to protect its Unix intellectual property from possible violations, particularly from Linux developers.
SCO hasn't sued anyone. Yet.
"Bringing a person like Mr. Boies on board is certainly an indication that they plan to take this very seriously," said Brian Ferguson, a partner in McDermott, Will & Emery's intellectual property department, in
Boies, a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, became famous in the IT world through his work as special trial counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice in its antitrust suit against Microsoft.
Because SCO's intentions are unclear, experts can't predict whether the company will prevail or fail in court, should it get litigious. But most agree that the Linux community had better get ready for a significant increase in legal challenges similar to the ones SCO may unleash.
"This is just the beginning; there's going to be a lot more of this," said Eric S. Raymond, president of the Open Source Initiative, a non-profit corporation that promotes the concept of open source software, such as Linux.
Open source software is, in general terms, that for which source code is available to users. By contrast, most commercial software vendors, such as Microsoft, rarely, if ever, disclose the source code of their programs, and normally forbid users from freely modifying, copying or distributing them. Some call this a "proprietary" approach to software licensing, to distinguish it from the approach of the open source and free software movements, which, while disagreeing on some things, concur that software ought to be free for users to copy, share, modify and redistribute. Neither the open source movement nor the free software movement demands that software be free of charge, a common misconception.
"What surprises me is that I thought the first assault would come from Microsoft. I didn't expect it would be some of our guys who would go over to the dark side," Raymond said, referring to the fact that SCO also sells Linux software.
The legal challenges could affect how Linux is developed, marketed, licensed, sold and used, implications of concern to Linux users, developers and vendors.
So why do some predict Tux, the official Linux penguin mascot, is headed for court? Some point to Linux's rising popularity, which could draw elements wanting to profit from its success by claiming intellectual-property misuse.
"As anything becomes more popular in an industry, it's going to open itself up to and become more of a potential target to holders of intellectual property," McDermott, Will & Emery's Ferguson said. "The Linux situation is a prime example of that."