If you should ever want to silence a chatty elevator after a hard day at a Linux conference, try uttering four simple words: “What if SCO wins?”
IBM may be marshalling an army of lawyers to litigate this very thought out of existence, but the fact remains that the technology industry is transfixed by The SCO Group's case. This tiny company from Utah — with its struggling product line — is grabbing the spotlight because everyone wants to know how the issue will play out.
Many observers do not expect this dispute to end in a court verdict, in part because they think a complete SCO victory could have a catastrophic effect on the technology industry. The $19 billion Unix market could be thrown into chaos, and the life of the open source community itself could be cut short. And customers? They’d be left with the one commodity they could least use: uncertainty.
Since SCO filed suit against IBM in March, claiming the computer maker had violated its Unix contract by adding work derived from SCO's System V Unix, the case has been further muddied by additional claims SCO has put forth.
SCO now maintains that Linux violates its Unix copyrights and that the GPL (GNU General Public License) software license that governs Linux is not valid. Add to this a countersuit from IBM and a lawsuit from Red Hat, and you end up with more possible outcomes than can be imagined.
Analysts agree, however, that SCO’s case boils down to determining whether the AT&T license that SCO acquired actually grants the company control over extensions to the Unix kernel, which SCO calls “derivative works” based on its intellectual property.
A SCO victory would clearly hurt IBM, and Linux users would suddenly find themselves running an illegal operating system. But because Linux has become an industrywide phenomenon, such a verdict could rock the entire IT industry. System V licensees such as SGI and Hewlett-Packard have made contributions to Linux that could easily fall under SCO’s expansive definition of derivative works, says Gordon Haff, an analyst at research company Illuminata.
Haff argues that it’s even possible for Unix products such as the Veritas file system, the Oracle database, or even Computer Associates’ Unicenter software to be considered Unix derivatives under this view. “If SCO were to win on the derivative-works claim, it would basically ratify an enormously broad … claim that would affect almost everything to ever touch Unix and would have implications for an enormous variety of products from an enormous variety of vendors,” Haff says.
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“We are not going to turn back,” says the IT manager, who asked not to be identified. “We figure that because we have purchased a distribution from SuSE ... we are licensed to use Linux,” he explains. “Until something happens in a court of law, we’re not going to do anything different from what we’re doing today. At that point, we will seek legal counsel.”