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Editor's Note: An Open Source Letter to Whom, SCO?

Sep 12, 2003, 23:30 (54 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

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By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

When Darl McBride sent his open letter to the open source community, I was especially struck by the offer to work with the community to work out various IP issues and perhaps a new "design a new business model that enhances the stability and trustworthiness of the Open Source community in the eyes of enterprise customers."

Many members of the community, from everyday desktop users right on up to Linus Torvalds, jumped on the statements made by McBride earlier this week, and the arguments offered against the Utah company have ranged from logically reasoned to outright incensed. It was, after all, a pretty fair bet that the community would be upset by the comments made in that letter.

So, I was later surprised by his comments in a Computerworld interview Thursday that he meant for the Monday letter to be a sort of "olive branch" to members of the open source community. My first reaction was that McBride will never have a career as an ambassador if that was his best effort at conciliation.

My second reaction was to go back and re-read the letter again, and see if there was something in the letter that I missed. Was there some statement in McBride's letter that was truly a opening for negotiation? Then it occurred to me: this letter may not be about a true opening of civil communication between The SCO Group and the open source community at all.

Here's my reasoning. Torvalds' reaction to McBride's letter was to basically say "negotiate what?"

My eventual reaction was "negotiate with whom?"

If I were a company who wanted to speak to the open source community, I would send press releases to Linux Today, Linux Weekly News, and maybe that little site called Slashdot, and I would get my message across. But if I wanted to interact with the community in any meaningful way, how would I go about it?

One possible way would be to interact with one or two prominent members of the community, such as Eric Raymond, Bruce Perens, Jon "maddog" Hall, or Torvalds itself. Not as leaders of Linux and Open Source, per se, but more like ambassadors.

Eric is certainly not hesitant to place himself in such a role, but his participation in that capacity is often called into question by some members of the community. I am sure that there would be some people that would have their own issues with Bruce, maddog, or Linus.

No matter whom was recommended in this role, there would always be some group in the community that would say "this person does not speak for me."

And I think that this is something that McBride and the rest of SCO is more than a little aware of. You can make all the motions to negotiate with the community all you want. But right now, in its present state, the community is nowhere near organized enough to sit at the other side of any negotiation table, especially in legal matters.

I think that SCO is very aware of this, and any move towards peace with the community is going to be empty because of this.

After essentially calling the community nothing but a bunch of thieves, trying to license and charge customers for Linux, and going out of their way to hint that Linux is nothing more than a pirated version of UNIX, gee, it's hard to imagine why the Linux community is upset with SCO.

If SCO really wants peace, then here is what it needs to do. It should abide by its own suggestions to the community in McBride's letter: "Linux end users must take a hard look at the intellectual property underpinnings of Open Source products and at the GPL (GNU General Public License) licensing model itself."

I don't think there is a single person in the Linux community that would argue that the developers of the Linux kernel and open-source software do not care about IP. Over and over, the community has pledged to remove any infringing code. But SCO has blocked efforts to do so, citing a need to protect its trade secrets and requiring any developer that would look at SCO's UNIX code to sign that restrictive NDA.

So, after extolling the community directly to take care of IP, SCO denies us the chance to do that very thing.

SCO wants it both ways. They want to fight a long battle, but they are seemingly weary of the daily skirmishes. They want their IP respected, but they are unwilling to even acknowledge that we want our own version of IP respected. We want Linux clean of any "stolen" code, if it is there.

But, despite what what they might tell us, The SCO Group does not just want their IP respected and valued. They also want legal acknowledgment that they "own" a piece of Linux, so they can gain monetary revenue from Linux' burgeoning success. Any other explanation, I feel, is just a diversionary tactic.

Like McBride's recent letter.

Because I don't think this letter was meant for the open source community at all. After re-reading the missive from Monday, I have arrived at another conclusion. The messages in this open letter were not meant for the community: they were meant for the potential licensees for SCO's new Linux license.

Knowing that the community is incensed about The SCO Group's actions, and knowing that a centralized negotiation with the Linux community is all but impossible at this time, this letter actually serves as a laundry list of all that is supposedly wrong with the community itself.

Look, the letter says, these people will launch DDoS attacks on you if you disagree with them. Look! They will obstruct justice and hide the criminals responsible for these attacks. And so on.

The numbered points later in the letter on how the community allegedly falls short on copyright and IP issues is not a constructive criticism. It's a warning to current and potential Linux customers that tries to scare them with talk of the potential liabilities those customers will take on with Linux.

Unless those customers take the easy, oh, so simple step of buying one of SCO's new Linux licenses.

What brought me to this conclusion was this sentence in McBride's letter: "Further, the SCO Group is open to ideas of working with the Open Source community to monetize software technology and its underlying intellectual property for all contributors, not just SCO."

This may have been over the top; the entreaty that may have revealed SCO's actual audience for this letter. At the time, I wondered who in their right mind in the open source community would take SCO up on this offer? Then it hit me: no one in the open source community... but what about outside the community?

In this one sentence, McBride has just asked other companies that think they have a claim to code within the Linux kernel to join them in their ongoing "battle for IP." This statement was never seriously addressed to the community, because such a statement to the community is ludicrous.

Looking at the rest of the open letter in this light, it really began to look more like a message to potential SCO customers.

What clinched it was the interview posted today from Computerworld. Now, because of the perfectly predicable kicked-hornets'-nest response from the Linux community, McBride has the opportunity to say "y'know, we tried to offer an olive branch, we tried to talk to them, but this Linux community, they just won't listen to us."

Spin translation: "hey, Linux customers, this community won't listen to us, and they sure as heck won't listen to you. You need the SCO Group to help you use Linux properly."

The SCO Group may have miscalculated the response from the IT community when it launched its trade-secret lawsuit against IBM. I think they assumed they would be perceived as the poor, hapless victim of Big Blue. But when very few media outlets and analysts made that assumption, SCO found itself perceived not as the victim, but as the bully. Especially when IBM did the proper legal tactic of keeping their mouths shut.

So now SCO has to put itself in the victim position. And they are provoking the open source community to do the bullying. This is little different from the little kid on the playground slapping the big kid and then screaming loudly for help when the big kid towers over the little one, ready to pummel.

But SCO does not want to kill Linux, just convince customers that they would be better off working with SCO than with these rebel open sourcers.

Will it work? The results thus far seem to be mixed. SCO's stock price is climbing ever higher, but Linux adoptions continue apace, unhindered by any threat of a lawsuit or insinuations of negligent behavior.

Obviously, the solution for the open source community in this case is to not allow themselves to be baited. SCO can't claim to be defending itself if there are nothing being said or done to it. That's a really hard pill to swallow for people, myself included. Personal reputations, pride, and billions of dollars of potential revenue are at stake, so it's easy to see why people can get jumpy.

I am one voice in the community, no more or less important than anyone else's. But I urge the community to not overreact to the statements coming out of Linden, Utah. Analyze, dissect, and repudiate, sure; but calling for physical harm or advocating illegal activities is not the proper response in any dispute.

Because, in all honesty, I don't think SCO really has anything important to say to the community. They just want to provoke.

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