Yep, the 'Who owns Linux?' case is back from the dead

Not to worry, zombies with a gambling addiction probably won't eat your enterprise brains


Column It seemed like a classic April The First spoof. Indeed, some tech titles had it on their lists of best pranks of the day. But it's true: the software zombie court case to end all zombie software court cases has woken from its slumber. Nearly 19 years after it first lurched from the crypt, SCO v The World Of Linux is back, and it smells just as bad as ever.

The details need not worry us: they were bad enough at the time. Have a look at this timeline if you want to follow the trail of dead.

At its most basic, the whole saga started with the reanimated Unix dev corpse SCO Group claiming it owned the rights to core technology in Unix and Linux, and that everyone else was using them illegally. An opening court case against IBM was followed by a salvo of letters demanding money from 1,500 companies, then the pre-IBM Red Hat countersued to stop the nonsense.

This new zombie should not scare anyone building their enterprise stack out of IBM, Red Hat or Linux

This sort of thing went on for decades in various forms, with other bit players circulating in and out.

Did SCO Group even own the rights to Unix it claimed it had got from NetWare? Did those rights extend to code that everyone else was using? SCO Group presented this as a solid piece of litigation seeking to protect the rights of the innovator to profit from their work: a more correct image would be a skeletal hand stuffing a slot machine with coins. Lots and lots of coins.

The odds were slim, but as with so many gambles the gambler is blinded by the size of the pot. Take the copyright claim – sure, every major company had that code running somewhere.

But as copyright only covers what a thing is rather than what it does, any offending code could easily be removed and new, non-infringing code written instead. There may be damages from the infringement, but there's no question of needing a licence thereafter. Here, the gamble was that enough companies wouldn't want to take the risk and would pay up rather than risk the costs of a court case they'd probably win.

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Nobody bit – but as SCO Group had extracted a $50m war chest from investors, there was everything to be gained by carrying on anyway. The court case against IBM – well, in most cases back then where people claimed infringement by IBM, IBM gave them some money in exchange for signing a legal promise never to go near Big Blue again. But every so often, it decides to fight – as it did this time.

SCO Group mostly lost, but the odd appeal let it carry on until it had spent every cent of its investors' money and it shut up shop in 2008, having had a fine five years on someone else's dime.

And thanks to the wonder of bankruptcy laws, the rights that SCO Group claimed would make it rich still had some residual value and could be bought out of bankruptcy by someone else with a fondness for the fruit machines.

That someone was Xinuos (try spelling it backwards). And they've found some more coins down the back of their – or someone else's – sofa. IBM and Red Hat are once again in the firing line for a rehash of the copyright claims with a little extra antitrust thrown in, because why not. Once again, the details don't really matter, it's just that someone's put some more money in the slot machine and is having another tug at the handle.

This new zombie should not scare anyone building their enterprise stack out of IBM, Red Hat or Linux. The idea that people will pay for them to go away didn't work then, and it certainly won't work now. The market for open-source stacks may have grown enough in the past 10 or so years and the potential winnings may look even better than before – on paper. Nothing has happened to shorten the odds.

In fact, the opposite is true. When the first case was filed, corporate unease at open source was far higher than it is now. Open source has won the argument, it has won its court cases, and it has won its place as the primary model for computing innovation. When the first SCO Group lawsuit was filed, Steve Ballmer had just called Linux "a cancer." Today, Ubuntu for Windows is a thing. The revolution is over, the palace has been stormed, and the penguin flag flies high.

Last time, the fear wasn't that SCO Group had a strong case, it was that with something so odd and messy in court, anything could happen. This time, the only question is who on Earth is pumping their money into such an uninviting machine? As scary zombie movies go, it's even funnier than an April Fool. ®


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