Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Story of SCO

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about a company called SCO and its failed attempt to charge people to use someone else’s work, given freely to the community. SCO tried to assert ownership over Linux and charge people to use it. It’s finally got its just desserts.

My speaking notes are below the fold with the usual links at the end.

A: I want to talk about an outfit called SCO – that’s S-C-O – and its legal attack on the owners and users of Linux. This one’s a doozy.

Q: Explain…

A: Let’s do a bit of background. Firstly, as most people know, Linux is an open source operating system which is widely used. It’s something of a poster child for open source software. The kernel, the core of the operating system, was invented by a Finnish man called Linus Torvalds in the 90s and he still leads the work of developing it and maintaining it, although lots of people around the world do much of the work. The Linux kernel needs to be wrapped together with a lot of other software to form a usable operating system; most of that other software is from Richard Stallman’s GNU project so many people insist that Linux is more properly called GNU/Linux.

Anyway, Linux operates in much the same way as a whole family of operating systems called Unix which originally came out of AT&T Bell Labs in the 70s.

Q: So Linux is a copy of Unix?

A: No, no, no. It’s completely written from scratch. It has the same world view as Unix, uses many of the same concepts and names for things. Programs written for one can generally be made to run on the other with a minimum of effort. This is really just an aspect of standardizing operating systems. The ISO standard for operating systems is called Posix and Linux and Unix both mostly implement Posix.

Q: All these names!

A: Actually they all go back to an ancient piece of computing history, a 1960s operating system called Multics which introduced a lot of the concepts that we still use. Multics actually an acronym of something vaguely sensible. The name Unix was created as a pun on Multics some years later, and things kind of went down hill from there as far as the naming is concerned! Anyway, Multics was a proprietary product of some big computer companies, Unix started that way but it fragmented into dozens of similar but different systems – the history of Unix would easily fill a program of its own and I’m summarizing desperately, and Linux is a newish Unix-like system.

Q: What about SCO? What have they got to do with all this?

A: SCO has the same name as a venerable Unix vendor, although it is actually a different company.

Q: That’s not any clearer…

A: SCO put its hand up in 2003 and said: we own Unix, Linux is a copy of Unix, pay us licence fees to use Linux or we will sue you.

Q: That would have made them popular.

A: Quite. It was worse than that. People felt utterly, utterly betrayed. Linux was widely known to have been written from the ground up, and the subsequent legal scrutiny has shown no credible evidence that any part of it was copied from Unix. Linux was and is an open source operating system put together by millions of hours of volunteer labour for the public good, and here was this tiny private company trying to cash in the fruits of other people’s work that they did for the public good. Frankly, everyone who knew anything about open source was outraged.

Q: What happened?

A: First of all a couple of companies paid some licence fees to SCO. The most notable was Microsoft, on the grounds that it used some Linux internally. This was quite a surprise to most open source people because Microsoft saw Linux as a serious competitive threat and was telling people that Windows was far better. And of course, after the SCO lawsuits started Microsoft started telling everyone that it as legally risky to use Linux and they’d be much better of with Windows.

Q: Right. So there were lawsuits, then?

A: Oh yes. SCO went and hired the same lawyers who the US Department of Justice used to go after Microsoft a few years before.

First SCO sued IBM, because IBM is a big Linux booster and has put many many hours of its engineers’ time into it. IBM sells a lot of hardware which runs Linux so its very much in IBMs interest to foster an operating system which runs well on their equipment. SCO asserted that IBM had put Unix code into Linux and demanded damages.

Then Red Hat – a prominent Linux company – sued SCO demanding that it stop claiming it owned Linux.

Next, Novell – another venerable operating system company – issued a press release saying it owns Unix – that’s Unix, not Linux – and SCO sued it for the magnificently named tort of “slander of title”.

Then, for good measure, SCO sued a couple of big companies that used Linux – AutoZone and DaimlerChrysler – seeking licence fees for Linux.

Q: And what was the reaction to all this?

A: The open sourcers rallied around a website called Groklaw. This is an amazing site and I recommend it for anyone who wants to understand a bit about how technology and the law come together – that’s another programme, by the way – and Groklaw is in the links for today’s programme.

Microsoft rather rubbed its corporate hands and went round telling its customers that Linux was legally risky to use and that no-one ever got sued for running for Windows.

This brings us to about 2004.

Q: What happened next?

A: The lawsuits ground their way through a seemingly interminable legal process. In the IBM case, which was meant to decide whether Linux was copied from Unix as SCO asserted, there was huge amounts of what lawyers call discovery with experts poring over mountains of computer source code. No evidence was found to back SCO. That case hasn’t concluded yet.

The Red Hat case and SCO’s cases against AutoZone and DaimlerChrysler have been put on hold pending the outcome of IBM.

Then a month ago the judge in the Novell case – remember, Novell said that SCO didn’t even own the Unix copyrights in the first place – found pretty much entirely in Novell’s favour. The effect of the finding was that SCO had been suing people for licence fees for things it didn’t own – even if they were in Linux in the first place, of which there was no evidence. At this point all SCO’s claims came down like a stack of cards. There was supposed to be a trial this week to work out how much SCO owed Novell, and it of course owes everyone who has paid it licence fees.

Q: So what was the outcome?

A: SCO declared bankruptcy – chapter 11 as they call it in the US. There’s no way it can pay what it owes. So all the remaining lawsuits go away because they rely on something which has been shown not be true.

Q: and the reactions?

A: Jubilation, and a good measure of schadenfreude. There are a couple of lessons from the whole sorry saga, though. The open source community has been strengthened by the whole legal attack because of the way it rallied together. And there has been an increase in the understanding of legal and licensing issues. And of course there has a lot of employment for lawyers, although I think SCO’s ones may not get paid!


The excellent Groklaw website.

A Wikipedia article about SCO and Linux.

posted by colin at 11:50 am  


  1. Thank you for bringing this to a wider audience Colin, I will never forget the day SCO went into Chapter 11.

    You told us all at BarCamp Wellington NZ Egov.

    I have spent thousands of hours on Groklaw over the years following the matter and getting up to speed with (US) law, I will need to find something else to do now.

    Comment by Andrew Russell — 21 September 2007 @ 10:03 pm

  2. Er…I imagine you meant “just desserts”.

    That aside, I enjoy your excellent radio talks (when I get the opportunity to listen to them) and thank you for this most useful site.

    Comment by Richard — 4 October 2007 @ 8:08 pm

  3. Oops, damn. I could have been trying to make a pun about the aridity of Utah where SCO lives, but I wasn’t. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Comment by colin — 4 October 2007 @ 8:12 pm

  4. […] in September I talked about a company called SCO that had been falsely claiming that it owned Linux – and it lost badly […]

    Pingback by » No business like SCO business — 27 February 2008 @ 4:48 am

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