TCS Daily

Is the Penguin Contaminated?

By Sonia Arrison - May 20, 2003 12:00 AM

If there's one thing the open-source community is known for, it's chutzpah. In a recent online petition, more than 1500 Linux users told the SCO Group, which owns intellectual property rights to key components of the Unix operating system, to sue them.

This show of bravado is in reaction to letters the SCO Group sent last week to companies around the world who use the Linux operating system, proud bearer of a penguin logo. The letters warned that corporations could face legal liability for using Linux without a license from SCO. SCO believes that Linux, which is open source and free, contains unauthorized portions of proprietary Unix code.

SCO President Darl McBride explained, "we have an obligation to our shareholders to protect our intellectual property and other valuable rights." And this isn't the only action the company has taken in an effort to enforce those rights.

In March, SCO sued IBM for $1 billion, alleging that Big Blue purposefully transferred bits of Unix into Linux in order to "destroy the economic value of Unix, particularly Unix on Intel, to benefit IBM's new Linux services business." IBM rejects these claims, but regardless of the outcome, it brings up some interesting challenges for the open source community.

Open-source proponents claim that their products, like Linux, are more flexible and less "buggy" than proprietary systems like SCO's Unix or Microsoft's Windows. While this claim is arguable, the controversy over intellectual property highlights a serious concern. Since open-source products can be modified by anyone, how does the community make sure that their products don't contain, by accident or purpose, someone else's intellectual property?

Some activists argue that the open-source community can police itself with multiple programmers on the lookout for unauthorized code. But if the responsibility doesn't actually lie with designated individuals, it's easy to see how that idea could quickly go awry.

Others, such as Gartner's George Weiss, suggest that companies who opt to use open source should "have an internal process, possibly with advice from their legal departments, to perform due diligence on the nature and origin of open source code for possible infringements of patents."

But if companies have to hire a bunch of lawyers to verify that they haven't broken any laws in using a computer program, it makes proprietary software start to look pretty good. That brings up an issue that open-source evangelists tend to ignore - that fewer bugs and greater flexibility are only two of the features users look for when selecting their tools. Cost, support, usability, and now legal safety are also part of the equation.

It hasn't yet been revealed exactly which part of Linux SCO believes is copied from Unix, but in a recent interview with Linux Journal, SCO representative Chris Sontag said that in "a couple of weeks" SCO will show their proof to "independent experts."

While the entire community is waiting for evidence to back up SCO's claims, some have speculated that SCO's legal maneuvers are a strategy to make itself a target for acquisition. If that's the case, it wouldn't be the first time that players in the software industry attempted to use the courts to gain advantage in the marketplace. According to many, that was the crux of the Microsoft antitrust case.

SCO denies that its intellectual property claims have anything to do with a desire to be bought. To bolster their argument, they list quotations from Linux leaders on their web site. A quote from the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman says, "Linux is a copy of Unix. There is very little new stuff in Linux."

Stallman has since told Wired News that the comment was taken out of context and that he was actually quoting another developer's comments, but it does go to show that SCO isn't alone in thinking that Linux might be contaminated.

Whatever the final outcome of this controversy, it's likely that most companies will now view open-source products with a more cautious eye. This is a call to programmers to be more vigilant in checking code, but one wonders if it will be heard.

After all, in scanning the online petition, one can't help but be struck by the many comments such as "get your hands of my linux you damn, dirty, corpo-apes!!" and worse. These words suggest we can expect defiance, not cooperation, on serious issues like intellectual property from the open-source community, at least in the near future.

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