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ESR: "This is a Strike at the Heart of our Community"

Mar 07, 2003, 07:00 (54 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. Raymond)

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[Editor's Note: This story was received from ESR 90 minutes before the newsfeeds started lighting up with the SCO/IBM story. Even though the text of the article refers to the lawsuit in the future tense, I have placed this article after breaking the lawsuit story to give readers as much hard information as early as possible. -BKP]

I have been given a copy of an article, supposedly to run in the Wall Street Journal tomorrow, which reports that Caldera Systems (which now does business as the SCO group) has filed suit agaist IBM for multibillion-dollar damages over supposed disclosure of SCO's intellectual property to what SCO calls the "free software community".

IBM has been selling Unix systems since the early 1980s. SCO bought the original Unix source-code tree and associated IPR from Novell in 1995. It is not, apparently, alleged that any of the infringing techology was developed on SCO's watch. Rather, the theory of the lawsuit is that "IBM made concentrated efforts to improperly destroy the economic value of Unix, particularly Unix on Intel, to benefit IBM's new Linux services business.". SCO claims that Linux wasn't a viable competitor to SCO Unix until IBM started supporting Linux and assigning its programmers to improving it, and that parts of the licensed Unix have been shared with the Linux community.

The particular techologies at issue aren't specified in the story. However, a rumor reached me last night that ELF, the file format for Unix binary executables, is part of it. Supposedly SCO regards ELF as a derivative of COFF, the old System V binary format invented by AT&T in the dark and backward abysm of time.

The confusion of "economic value" with "SCO's ability to collect profits on the terms it chooses" is, of course, fallacious. Unix has far more economic value than it did in 1995, partly because the low price of the open-source versions makes Unix more attractive to users. Sadly, we can't count on the trial judge being economically literate,

This move bespeaks an interesting combination of cleverness and idiocy, probably one born of desperation. Suing IBM rather than one or more Linux vendors is smart; they have deeper pockets and won't look quite so sympathetic in court. It's idiotic on another level, because IBM has more lawyers and a bigger patent portfolio than anyone else.

It's also smart to accuse the "free-software" community. SCO knows as well as Microsoft did in 2000 that the term "free software" is likely to sound suspicious to anyone who is not already immersed in the open-source community, and that talking as though all Linux developers have a whiff of piracy or communism about them might well help their case (a tactic the DVDCCA has also used in its persecution of Jon Johansen). But it's also deeply stupid to piss off that community like this, unless you think you're never going to have to hire programmers again. SCO is behaving as though it thinks its IP portfolio is the only asset it has left.

Despite their advantages, IBM needs and deserves our support. I am not saying this primarily because they're a big, important ally (though they are) but because what SCO is doing is ethically wrong and legally dubious. Much of the economic value they allege IBM to have destroyed was created and donated to AT&T by open-source hackers in the 1970s and 1980s, long before we woke up and named ourselves either as "free software" or "open source". Even if SCI's allegations that it owns key pieces of Unix IP are valid, it's fair that we should have access to today's descendant of that technology.

But even if you don't care about the ethics, make no mistake: this is a strike at the heart of our community. Conceivably we could live without IBM, but we can't live with the fear that any possible ally we might have in the future would get sued by whatever gang of desperate schlemiels holds the old paperwork from AT&T this week.

Please support IBM in fighting off this lawsuit. It's important for the future.


Eric S. Raymond

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