PARK RIDGE, Ill. Legal storm clouds formed over the Linux community last week, as software vendors and corporate giants reacted to an ominously worded letter from SCO Group advising them to seek counsel if they use Linux. Basically, SCO claims that the open-source Linux operating system infringes on the intellectual property developed for Unix. If the claims were to hold up in court, the business model of providing "open" software, closely associated with Linux, could be broken.
The letter, sent on May 12 to Fortune 1,000 companies and 500 other global con-
cerns, fired a shot across the bow of the Linux user community, which reacted with angry criticism on Web sites and message boards. Hundreds of e-mails poured into SCO (Lindon, Utah), and a few postings threatened violence, executives said.
"There have been postings threatening drive-by shootings at our corporate headquarters, and there have been postings of our executives' home addresses and phone numbers on message boards," said an SCO spokesman.
"It's as if somebody whacked Santa Claus," a competing software developer said of the irate public response.
SCO says it decided to issue the written warning to 1,500 corporations around the world after hiring three groups of mathematicians and programmers to comb through Linux in search of patent infringements against Unix software patents that SCO owns. "There were three independent groups, all experts in the field, and all three independently found incidences of our code being incorporated into Linux," said the SCO spokesman.
Linux supporters last week charged that SCO Group is hiding its real agenda. "This is a tactic used by someone who just wants to create fear, uncertainty and doubt about whether or not Linux, or any free software, should be used at all," said Jon (Maddog) Hall, executive director of Linux International (Nashua, N.H.), a global organization advocating Linux.
Hall and other open-source advocates argue that in the real world, software code is frequently co-opted, even in "closed-source" software projects.
"SCO seems to think that every time a piece of code is written, it is reviewed by people who are knowledgeable about existing patents," Hall said. "But that doesn't really happen."
Tell us what code was copied, says Linux International's Jon Hall.
Hall also said that SCO "has refused to talk about what they claim was copied."
SCO countered that it will let industry analysts see the alleged infringements in the next few weeks, provided they agree to sign nondisclosure agreements beforehand.
Meanwhile, Microsoft Corp. (Redmond, Wash.) weighed in with a different reaction, agreeing to buy a license for SCO's Unix patents, which form the crux of its case against Linux.
Microsoft's move added fuel to the debate over the imminent legal battle, which some believe could have profound implications not only for Linux but also for the software business at large. That is because, historically, chunks of proprietary code have landed in unusual places, including the commercial programs of big-name vendors.
"This is the biggest thing that has ever happened to Linux and maybe even to software in general," said Dave Fraser, group vice president of products for Wind River Systems Inc. (Alameda, Calif.), whose software competes with Linux products. "It's ignited a huge amount of interest in what will happen to the open-source movement."
"At the very least, it forces all those companies to do a legal investigation to see whether they have anything to be concerned about," said Brian Ferguson, an intellectual-property attorney for McDermott, Will & Emery in Washington (see story, this page).
SCO Group in March announced a $1 billion lawsuit charging IBM Corp. with misappropriating trade secrets and competing unfairly in the Linux market. The complaint, filed in the State Court of Utah, charged that IBM improperly made concentrated efforts to destroy the economic value of Unix in order to benefit its Linux service business. To argue its case, SCO hired high-profile attorney David Boies, who prosecuted the Microsoft antitrust case for the U.S. government and later represented Al Gore in the 2000 election's vote-counting scandal.
At the time the lawsuit was filed, many experts saw the action against IBM as a private scrap between two companies that had no bearing on the Linux community at large. But with SCO's warning letters to the broader industry, all of that has changed.
"When we started coming across those infringements, we realized that we as a company needed to elevate this to a level of more than just the allegations against IBM," SCO's spokesman said. "We needed to make Linux users aware that we were finding our Unix code in Linux, and that legal liability could rest with them." SCO's letter advised the corporations to seek the opinion of counsel to determine whether or not they should be running Linux in their organizations.
Wind River executives said last week that fear of legal action caused them to abandon their own Linux program, which was quietly moving into high gear three years ago. After investing more than a year in Wind River Linux, they said they decided against releasing it because Linux is subject to the laws of the general public license, which allows users to demand access to an OEM's source code. "We decided we didn't want to expose our customers to those kinds of issues," said Fraser of Wind River. "This like going after the tobacco companies. If it's successful, it will tear down the precepts that support Linux, and it could affect the concept of all software."
Even before mailing the warning letter on May 12, SCO was feeling the heat. On May 3, SCO's computers were struck by what the company calls a "coordinated denial-of-service" attack, which forced its Internet service provider to take the site off line for about five hours. SCO blamed Linux supporters.
Some observers say the anger is most keen among users with a deep belief in the concept of free and open software. "This is an argument that you can't win, because it's not so much a technology issue as it is a religious issue," Fraser said.