By Tim Landgrave

In early March, SCO Group filed a $1 billion lawsuit against IBM, accusing it of violating its UNIX license. Depending on how IBM responds, its Linux strategy and, in fact, the fate of the entire Linux movement, may hang in the balance. Let’s look at the history behind the lawsuit, its effect on customers and competitors in the market, and how IBM could turn this lawsuit into an opportunity to accelerate Linux adoption rather than deter it.

SCO Group’s power play
The most obvious question is, “How did SCO Group get the footing to file such a lawsuit anyway?” After developing UNIX in the 60s and turning it into a broad commercial operating system in the 80s, AT&T’s Bell Labs sold all of the rights (and, more important, all of its licensing contracts) to Novell in 1992. Novell hoped to meld its Novell operating system with UNIX in a last-ditch effort to thwart Microsoft’s attempt to move into the enterprise. At the time of the acquisition, Microsoft was still a year away from introducing its first version of Windows NT, and Novell looked like a sure bet to migrate from a file/print-only operating system to a true client/server platform.

But Novell’s inability to resolve the inherent conflict between the use of UNIX as its application platform and its own Netware Loadable Module (NLM) technology led it to ultimately sell its rights to UNIX to the SCO Group in 1995. Novell’s primary benefit from the technology acquisition turned out to be its implementation of Novell Directory Services (NDS) for UNIX variants, giving it a chance to be a player in the enterprise directory space.

However, SCO was in the best position to reap the benefits of ownership of UNIX technology. SCO, a former AT&T UNIX licensee, had been the primary source of independent UNIX distributions. Companies such as Sun (Solaris), IBM (AIX), and HP (HP/UX) had versions of UNIX for their own hardware based on technology that they had licensed originally from AT&T and that was now owned by SCO.

In recent years, the importance of SCO as a UNIX vendor has been diminishing rapidly as Linux has taken over the UNIX market. Also, Linux penetration was almost exclusively in the x86 market that SCO used to dominate. As Linux has been ported to other hardware platforms, the desire for “Pure UNIX” has basically disappeared. But while Sun and HP have continued to support their existing UNIX platforms, IBM has aggressively moved to displace its own UNIX derivative with Linux. Although SCO has been able to create and market other innovative technologies on the UNIX platform (most notably Tarantella, a Citrix-like product for the UNIX market), the company has become inconsequential in the overall market for UNIX/Linux.

At a minimum, this lawsuit allows SCO to profit from the work that other vendors have done to build their businesses around Linux. How? If the central allegation of the lawsuit is true—and logic dictates that it probably is—a huge number of vendors using Linux and their customers are in violation of an intellectual property agreement owned by SCO. The central allegation is that IBM used SCO’s knowledge (and perhaps even actual code) of the UNIX code base gained in its implementation of AIX to develop and enhance the implementation of Linux on its hardware platforms.

Who cares?
Companies currently considering a decision to adopt Linux may choose to wait or consider alternatives if they fear that an SCO victory would throw the Linux market into a state of disarray. Although SCO has not yet filed suit against other key Linux players such as Red Hat or other hardware manufacturers that are starting to move more aggressively into the Linux space (like Sun with its Cobalt acquisition or HP/Compaq with its new server distributions), any ruling on this case that gives SCO a reason to file would create havoc in the Linux market. Of course, SCO denies that this is an attempt to deter Linux adoption and claims that it is more about protecting its contractual commitments and the intellectual property rights that it acquired from Novell. Regardless of its intent, no one in the Linux market stands to gain from this action.

But Sun and Microsoft do. For instance, after SCO filed the lawsuit, Sun responded quickly by telling its Solaris licensees that they had nothing to fear from any SCO action (of course, it made no public comment regarding its line of Linux servers). And any action that slows the Linux corporate incursion ultimately helps Microsoft. All Linux vendors, but primarily IBM, will benefit from the quick resolution of this case.

IBM’s options
Although IBM claims that the allegations are baseless, it will be expensive and time-consuming to take this case to court. After attempting to get the suit thrown out in its entirety (which a judge will deny), IBM will have to decide whether to defend itself or find another option. I think IBM would be smart to do the latter. In fact, IBM (either by itself or with a consortium of other UNIX licensees) should simply buy SCO and then either put the UNIX technology into the public domain or license it to the general market under the same terms as the core Linux license.

By doing so, it would remove all doubt about the legality of core UNIX utilities that have been ported to Linux. In addition, it would eliminate all licensing fees for all derivatives of UNIX including Linux, making it more attractive for all companies to develop for or implement on UNIX/Linux. An outright acquisition and public distribution of SCO’s UNIX rights would be the best thing for IBM and the Linux market. And it’s probably the real reason SCO filed the lawsuit to begin with.