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Editor's Note: The Playbook for Linux' Adversaries

Apr 16, 2004, 23:59 (11 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

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By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I hurt my knee this week in TaeKwonDo practice. Partially torn ligament, the ER doctor said. Owwie, is what I said.

I would like to tell you that it was done in the middle of an intense sparring competition, where I was pitted against a skilled black belt who crumpled before my vicious onslaught and, while falling to the ground, kicked me with a flailing leg.

I'd even like to tell you that I hurt myself performing a daring breaking technique of a concrete cinder block.

Yup, that's what I'd like to tell you.

Except, I hurt myself stretching. That's all, just... stretching.

Mistakes, of course, happen all the time. We get careless, overconfident, or just plain stupid and things just go kablooey. Then there's just the plain old accidents that Fate, God, or Whomever seems to just plunk down on us at various random intervals.

I think my error fell into the just plain stupid category, and I am willing to leave it at that. I am not bitter about it, since there was not a lot of lingering pain, and I think I learned what not to do in the future. Overall, I will count myself fortunate that a life lesson was learned.

I think such a life lesson should be heeded in the Linux community as well.

I am referring to the SCO/IBM, SCO/Red Hat, SCO/GPL series of debacles that have graced our lives over the course of the past year. Whether their efforts were noble or not, SCO has stirred up a vast hornet's nest of controversy. I have said in the past that while their goal was clearly to direct that controversy towards Linux, they have failed in that regard. The controversy, it seems, has turned back on them.

But what about the next time?

There will be a next time, I guarantee you that. Someone somewhere is going to make a try for Linux, and the courtroom seems a good place to start the attack. The ideal plan would be (a) sue Linux through one of its proxies, (b) point out to anyone listening that Linux is naughty, and (c) raking in the customers who flee in terror from the evil penguin.

SCO is trying this (I could say tried, but they're not done yet) and so far, they have not gotten to point (c) yet. This is likely because they haven't been able to prove to anyone that they have a case at point (a).

My fear is that someone might come along and try it again. Except this time sue a Linux proxy with something more vague that will be much harder to disprove. Something, say, like a patent violation.

With code infringements, its a fairly clear-cut case: the infringee proves the infringer is a cheater-pants and stole their code. Patent violations, though, are much harder to wade through because they are based around concepts more than substantive objects. I know I am greatly oversimplifying the legalese here, but if you want that, go visit Groklaw.

But it is my very ignorance of the law that we should all be cautious about. Think about this: I am, it could be stated, fairly knowledgable in things free and/or open source. But I would, as an outside observer, no know if a claimed patent violation were true or not. At least, not right away.

Now, think about someone else in the broader IT community, who is releatively smart tech-wise, but is also just not a lawyer. If an alleged violation is hinted at, what will they think? What will they do? I would hope, and I would urge them, that they would consult their lawyers.

It is no secret that Microsoft wants to get Linux' role in IT minimized (actually, annihilated, but I am being charitable). It is also no secret that since June 2003, Microsoft is ramping up the number of patent applications they have filed. This is the same Microsoft, mind you, that someone recently pointed out has enough cash reserves to sit on five years of zero sales if they had to wait Linux out.

Plenty of time for a patent trial or two. Or three.

It has been argued that Microsoft won't want to do this, because it would be seen as anti-competitive by the US Department of Justice. More likely, the patent suit(s) would come from a proxy. In essence, a cold war, with billions of dollars at stake.

It may geninely not come from Redmond at all. There's a lot of money to made from Linux. Lots of people want to get their fingers into the pie.

If this happens, it will be the hardest fight Linux and the GPL and open source and all the concepts of the community has ever fought. It won't matter who's right, or who's wrong. The implication may be enough to wear Linux adoption down.

I have some hope, of course. I am more of an optimist than I should be. My hope is this: that since SCO has revealed this plan, by its very actions, the media and the public may not take a patent suit at face value. They may start poking in corners and inside desks to see what's really going on.

We may have been given a great gift from SCO: a look into the playbook of the next big challenge for Linux.

Time to start learning.