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SCO Threatens to Press IP Claims on Linux

SCO Threatens to Press IP Claims on Linux

Informed sources, who would only talk on the guarantee of anonymity, say SCO has been proposing to charge users $96 per CPU for a so-called one-time System 5 for Linux software license to protect their systems from SCO-enforced patent issues if they ante up as soon as demand is made. The fee would go up to $149 per CPU if SCO had to wait through a so-called 99-day "amnesty period" for its money. Users of SCO Linux would get a free System 5 license. They would also have the free right to run SCO Unix apps on Linux.

Sources say the scheme, which pretty much sounds like a protection racket - we won't sue if you pay - isn't engraved in stone but an undated weeks-old draft SCO press release that details the plan and was read to us has been quietly making the rounds. At press time, we got word that a major player, believed to be IBM, thought it had dissuaded SCO from going through with the idea.

A usually reliable source swears a SCO executive told him that SCO has hired the redoubtable David Boies, who prosecuted the Microsoft antitrust case for the Justice Department, to press infringement claims not against users but against the other Linux distributions. Presumably this means Red Hat, Sun Microsystems, and maybe even SCO's United Linux partners SuSE, TurboLinux, and Conectiva.

It is unclear whether SCO envisioned the free System 5 license it's been proposing to bundle with SCO Linux extending to its United Linux partners or simply saw it as a SCO differentiator.

SCO would base any claims it makes on the Unix patents and copyrights that it acquired when it took over the Santa Cruz Operation. Its press release claims it "owns much of the core Unix IP" and that it has the right to enforce it.

The Santa Cruz Operation of course bought Unix from Novell, which in turn got it from AT&T. Unix was written at Bell Labs when Bell Labs was still part of the phone company. It is unclear whether the alleged IP is unassailable and that valid patents or copyrights actually exist or that the Unix libraries are actually in Linux. Reportedly there has been a lot of patent research going on in the Linux community lately and there are supposedly serious doubts SCO has much of anything.

SCO CEO Darl McBride was in England or en route home and did not return calls. Other SCO execs declined to comment; neither would Red Hat, SuSE nor major ISVs also familiar with the situation.

SCO's director of marketing communications Blake Stowell finally found a phone and confirmed that SCO was talking to Boies, described in the press release as SCO's "IP advisor," about how best to monetize its IP, but denied that it had retained him yet or that its plans were fixed.

Stowell also denied that SCO would target other Linux distributions, basically suggesting that it would be suicide for SCO to do such a thing. "Microsoft would love to see that happen," he said. Instead Stowell suggested that SCO would take out after other unidentified operating systems that drive something from Unix and hinted that that might mean Microsoft itself since Boies was involved.

Potential SCO targets said patent demands and encumbrances are explicitly outlawed by the GPL, the touchstone of the open source/Linux movement, and any move by SCO against the Linux distributions would make SCO a pariah. They claim the protection scheme itself would be the end of SCO. The open source community regards patents with haughty distain. Naturally there are fears that accounts on the Linux threshold will be spooked if SCO, which is playing on known IP concerns, starts making demands.

The situation is fraught with irony considering that open source people have figured it would be cash-rich Microsoft that took out after them brandishing its patent portfolio, not one of their own.

Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik publicly fretted about his worries that Microsoft will eventually take Linux to court for patent infringement at a Linux gathering only a month ago (CSN No 479).

Red Hat says it is so concerned - despite the fact that it's against patents and signed a petition to the European Union urging the EU not to adopt software patents - that it has "reluctantly" taken the "defensive position" of assembling its own patent portfolio. To mitigate its intellectual inconsistency, it says its patents can be used for free for any GPL work. Licenses, however, would be required for any closed, proprietary use.

SCO, on the other hand, needs the money. Its tiny Linux business is a disaster and there's little doubt that the company, founded by ex-Novell CEO Ray Noorda, would be out on the street by now if it weren't for the Unix operating systems it got from Santa Cruz.

Meanwhile, Boies' track record since the Microsoft case hasn't been anything to write home about. He wasn't able to save either Al Gore or Napster and actually a lot of the tar he managed to dip Microsoft in rubbed off with Microsoft's subsequent appeal and settlement with the DOJ.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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