Linux Users Uneasy at Ruling

A federal judge's ruling August 10 that Novell Inc., not The SCO Group Inc., legally owns the copyrights for Unix thrust the intellectual property battles begun by SCO in early 2003 back into the IT spotlight.

But several IT managers and industry analysts said last week that while the decision certainly was a significant development, they long ago stopped viewing SCO's legal campaign against Linux backers as a real threat to users of the open-source operating system.

Some added, though, that a potentially more serious threat still exists, in the form of Microsoft Corp.'s claim earlier this year that Linux and other open-source technologies infringe on 235 of its patents.

Jon Callas, who is both chief technology officer and chief security officer at PGP Corp., said the pro-Novell ruling by U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball was "a small relief" for his company. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based vendor of digital cryptography and security tools uses Red Hat Linux and Novell's SUSE Linux software internally, and it sells server-level security products that run on a custom version of Linux.

Callas said that when SCO first sued IBM, Novell and other companies, some of its legal claims seemed credible enough that PGP officials brainstormed about what they could do if the company had to move away from Linux. PGP set contingency plans to switch to the FreeBSD version of Unix if need be, but it has never come to that -- and last Friday's ruling further calms any lingering concerns about the legal fight, he said.

"I haven't thought that they had much of a leg to stand on," Callas said of SCO and its legal claims. SCO may well appeal Kimball's ruling, he added, "but it's kind of like the black knight in the Monty Python movie who lost his arms and legs and said, 'Come back here and I'll bite your kneecaps.' [Linux] is definitely in a safer place."

George Weiss, an analyst at Gartner Inc., agreed via e-mail that Kimball's ruling should help relax any Linux users who were worried about running after SCO filed its lawsuits. But he cautioned that there are still potential legal fights ahead from vendors such as Microsoft. "Don't forget that Microsoft has stepped up to the plate on the patent infringement side," Weiss wrote.

Weiss said he has continually recommended to "ultra-risk-sensitive users" that they seek indemnity protection from their vendors and keep Linux deployments to non-mission-critical installations. He even has suggested that they install comparable Unix or Windows systems as backups to Linux machines in case a switch becomes necessary because of legal issues.

Lindon, Utah-based SCO initially sued IBM in March 2003 for allegedly infringing on its intellectual property rights by submitting some of the Unix source code for use in Linux. SCO later filed similar lawsuits against other vendors, including Novell and Red Hat Inc. It also sued DaimlerChrysler AG and AutoZone Inc. over their use of Linux, although the DaimlerChrysler suit was quickly dismissed by a judge in Michigan.

In Kimball's ruling last week, the judge also said that because Novell is the proper owner of the Unix copyrights, it can direct SCO to revoke its copyright-infringement claims against IBM. Novell has done so already, but SCO hasn't followed that order.

SCO officials weren't available for comment on Kimball's ruling. But Darl McBride, SCO's president and CEO, wrote in a letter to the company's customers and business partners that the judge's decision "has not yet been fully vetted by the legal system, and we will continue to explore our options with respect to how we move forward from here."

McBride also said that the ruling doesn't affect SCO's ability to continue developing and supporting all versions of its UnixWare and OpenServer products. And addressing contentions that the decision could put SCO's future viability in doubt, he wrote that the company's "primary business is not to litigate or to solely rely on outcomes in the courts, but to rapidly evolve SCO's technology platforms to meet your needs in the marketplace."

Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group in San Jose, said via e-mail that he finds it "hard to believe that any legal team would have gone as far as [SCO's] did without making sure that it had the rights [to Unix] in the first place." But he added that SCO's claims seemed to have run out of steam long before Kimball issued his ruling.

"I think for most [users], the SCO 'cloud' largely went away around two years ago," Enderle wrote. "In most cases, they looked at this like a soap opera, and not one they were particularly interested in anymore."

Bill Regehr, CIO at the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, said that the Atlanta-based organization has yet to deploy any systems based on Linux. But SCO's lawsuits have had "no bearing on whether we would or would not use it," Regehr wrote in an e-mail.

"The reality is that when all is said and done, these companies are going to sort things out and life will go on without the interruption of support for any existing applications," he added. Even if Kimball's ruling does put SCO's survival in question, "someone will buy their application set and support for existing clients will go on," Regehr wrote.

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