Battered SCO on the warpath again

SCO, the company that created an outcry earlier this year by stating every copy of Linux was in violation of their copyrights, is targeting SGI for their next action.

In an open letter from SCO to the Open Source community which broadly accuses the community of coddling those who launched denial of service attacks against SCO last month, he also took aim at long- time UNIX computer manufacturer SGI as contributing SCO-licensed source code to Linux.

Evidence for this particular complaint comes from an article in ComputerWire on August 26, 2003 (courtesy of Yahoo) which quotes Bruce Perens (author of the Open Source Definition) as stating that there is an "error in the Linux development process" and that code from SGI's license of SCO's UNIX property made it into the Linux 2.4 distribution because of this error.

Thus, SCO's Darl McBride, determines ipso facto that SCO's claims about Linux's millions of lines of code being replete with copyright violations must be true.

He then goes on to describe a lengthy (and costly) process by which each line of code in an open source project must be verified as being the original thought of each contributor and must be legally documented.

Interesting double standard

So, I've been in the software development game for over 25 years now (I know, hard to believe that I'm that much of an old codger, but I did start in 1978) and professionally for over 20 years. I've written code that was donated to the world (NCSA Telnet, once the most popular internet software for the Macintosh) and have taken that "open source" (although we didn't call it that at the time) software and helped build a profitable company with it by adding new and unique code.

In all of these years, I've seen plenty of code of questionable origin and have successfully fought the temptation that so many fall prey to of putting other copyrighted code into your system without appropriate license.

You see, Open Source software is an open book. Companies like SCO who think that their rights have been violated can open up the source code to Linux and run complex source code analysis on it to determine if there are any lines of code that look similar. This way, they can sue the people they think are responsible for it and attempt to blackmail the entire community into paying them hundreds of dollars. (As an aside, if you reject my use of the phrase blackmail, consider that in most intellectual property cases, if you stop using the infringing code (which you unwittingly employed in the first place) and removed or replaced it with non-infringing code, you would be allowed to go on about your business -- an option that SCO has intentionally prevented people from exercising by not disclosing the exact nature of the copied code, in an attempt to blackmail the community into licensing their software so that they would not have an interruption in use while the offending code (if found) is removed -- but, I digress).

The assertion by SCO's CEO that the open source development process is flawed because it allows this kind of copying to go on is at best naive and at worst hypocritical. Even in their public contentions about offending code, SCO is unwilling to disclose the source code that they believe is being used illegally. This doesn't even approach the code that is in their systems which may be there illegally.

Here's a not-so-uncommon scenario, one much more common than IBM or SGI employees cribbing code from AT&T or SCO:

  • Commercial software vendor finds Open Source (GNU licensed) code that does what they need
  • Commercial software vendor incorporates said code into new product
  • Commercial software vendor doesn't mention this fact to anyone and since it is a "small portion" (i.e. not identifiable because only the binaries are shipped) of the source code Unfortunately, this company is in strict violation of the GNU license agreement that stipulates that the code can only be used if the source code it is integrated into is given away freely.

Now, being a stickler for IP issues, I avoid GNU-licensed code when I'm incorporating other code into my own because I don't like to give away my bread and butter. I'd rather deal with giving away useful pieces when I want to and taking the same from code bases (like FreeBSD) that are literally unrestricted. However, there are plenty of places where GNU licensed code has found its way into inappropriately licensed systems. Take, for example, the recent row over Linux and Linux bits running in commercial wireless routers.

Fortunately for Microsoft and SCO, there's no reasonable way for the Open Source community to assail the commercial software community about stealing their free stuff without complying with the license agreements. However, it does beg the question of why the Open Source community should be held to a higher standard than those people who are making money from software.

Perhaps if Mr. McBride really wants to see justice done, there should be a new tax on software (not paid by the free guys of course) that will fund a new federal agency which will be responsible for verifying that every line of code is indeed owned by the owner of the code.