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SCO Takes Linux Licensing Fight Further

By Jay Lyman
Jul 22, 2003 1:04 PM PT

Despite skepticism from several Linux supporters, Unix software maker SCO has reiterated its claims that the Linux kernel -- versions 2.4.x and later -- incorporates the company's own proprietary source code. SCO has called on Linux users to purchase licenses to avoid copyright infringement.

SCO Takes Linux Licensing Fight Further

Lindon, Utah-based SCO has been in a legal battle with IBM for the past four months, claiming that Linux contains Unix System V source code and calling Linux "an unauthorized derivative of Unix."

After sending out 1,500 letters to corporate Linux users in May of this year, SCO announced this week that it has received U.S. copyright registrations for its Unix System V code and is asking commercial Linux users to purchase licenses to run the open-source software legally.

Several commercial Linux users, including Red Hat and SuSE, have expressed doubt about the need for the licenses - which have yet to be priced officially by SCO. However, Yankee Group senior analyst Laura DiDio is advising customers not to dismiss SCO's licensing offer, despite the arguments of those who think SCO's claims will not be taken seriously in court.

"The customers who received these 1,500 letters from SCO have been told this isn't going anywhere," DiDio told TechNewsWorld. "I don't think anyone should listen to such empty assurances."

Soft Pitch for License

DiDio, who said SCO's copyright registrations illustrate the company's seriousness about its claims and represent a step toward possible litigation, described SCO's actions as "a very wise course."

"They went out of their way to say they are holding Linux customers harmless," she said. "They're not being greedy. Under the law, if they prevailed [in the IBM suit], they could hold the infringers liable."

DiDio criticized IBM's lack of indemnification of customers in the legal case and noted that by stating Linux creator Linus Torvalds had inherited the copyright violation and was therefore not responsible for it, SCO is "trying to ruffle as few feathers as possible."

Plan Taking Shape

SCO spokesperson Blake Stowell told TechNewsWorld that the software company is asking Linux users to purchase the licenses because it knows its Unix source code has been incorporated into Linux.

"We're asking to be compensated for businesses' use of our software," he said.

Stowell said SCO has not finalized the licensing plan, which will roll out in the coming weeks, but he noted that the license will be similar to SCO's UnixWare licenses, which cost about US$700 per CPU.

SCO, which on Tuesday also announced the acquisition of Web services software maker Vultus, said it will offer the licenses to support runtime use of Linux for all commercial users of Linux kernel version 2.4.x and later and will not pursue legal action against customers that purchase the licenses.

Diplomatic Response

Stowell said SCO has received several e-mails and other correspondence from Linux users asking how to make their use of Linux legal.

"A lot of these folks were asking how they can run Linux without infringing on our code," he said. "The way to do that is to purchase the license."

While free-software proponents, such as the Free Software Foundation, as well as corporate Linux backers including Red Hat and SuSE, have downplayed the legal threat from SCO, Stowell said the response from most companies contacted has been "diplomatic." [*correction]

Legal Argument Assailed

Eben Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University and general counsel for the Free Software Foundation, told TechNewsWorld that SCO's call for licenses has no legal merit because Linux users are already covered by the General Public License, under which the open-source software is distributed.

Moglen also said the license being discussed by SCO would be incompatible with the GPL for distributors of Linux.

"As far as I can see, they're saying people who don't need licenses should take them and people who need them for distribution should take a license that is incompatible with GPL," Moglen said. "It sounds more like pressure, or making threats in order to get money from people."

*Editor's Correction Note: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the Free Software Foundation as a proponent of open-source software instead of free software. Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation, writes: "Actually we advocate free software (free as in freedom), and have done so since 1985. This means users should be free to study, change, and redistribute software much as cooks study, change, and redistribute recipes. The open source movement was founded years later, in 1998, by people in the free software community that liked our software and practices but rejected our ideals." We apologize for this error.

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