Has SCO forgotten something?

GNU/Linux occupies a special place in the online economy. It is both the most significant result of the novel distributed software development process made possible by the Internet, and also a crucial part of the latter's infrastructure. As a consequence, SCO's escalating legal action against GNU/Linux and its users is of particular concern to those in the Web world. One reflection of this is the decision of EV1Servers to take out a licence from SCO - even if the company's CEO now seems to have his doubts about the wisdom of becoming the first public licensee.

SCO filed its $1 billion action against IBM on 6 March 2003, alleging "misappropriation of trade secrets, tortious interference, unfair competition and breach of contract". The complaint states that "Prior to IBM’s involvement, Linux was the software equivalent of a bicycle. UNIX was the software equivalent of a luxury car." Since then, there have been numerous petitions, claims and counterclaims from both sides.

The most complete listing of links for the SCO vs IBM saga is a Wiki (the main Wikipedia also has a good page on the subject). For an in-depth discussion of the legal niceties, Groklaw is the place to go, while a technical rebuttal to the complaint has been put together by Eric Raymond with help from the open source community. Leaving aside the details of the case, what is most extraordinary about this whole episode is the historical background against which it is unfolding.

It may not be clear from the long corporate timeline that the company now known as SCO is really Caldera Systems; the latter purchased most of the original SCO, including SCO's rights to Unix. As Caldera's press archive makes clear, the company's main focus was GNU/Linux. But delving even further back into Linux's past, the present anti-Linux actions take on an even more ironic aspect.

Caldera was set up in October 1994 - by no means the first company to sell a GNU/Linux distribution, but certainly one of the earliest to concentrate on serving the business sector. It was widely regarded as likely to become the dominant player there: in 1996, Linus Torvalds himself described Caldera as "a step beyond" its main rival, Red Hat. Caldera was a pioneer in porting business applications to GNU/Linux: early milestones included a Netscape Web server and browser, and the StarOffice suite that later formed the basis of the increasingly-popular OpenOffice software.

As a result of this trailblazing, Caldera/SCO could probably claim with some justification that it kickstarted the entire GNU/Linux business market - a sector now seriously threatened by the current Caldera/SCO lawsuit. It would be interesting to know what the original investors in Caldera's IPO think of this U-turn.

One factor making success in the courts look increasingly difficult for SCO is the position of Novell. As the previous owner of Unix, Novell more than anyone should know what rights SCO possesses in this area.

Novell's full conversion to the GNU/Linux faith has been rapid, beginning with the acquisition of Ximian and SuSE last year. But, like Caldera/SCO, Novell too is carrying considerable historical baggage. The two founders of Caldera - Bryan Sparks and Ransom Love - both worked at Novell. Some time before Novell sold Unix to SCO in 1995, Sparks and Love had brought Torvalds over from Finland to talk about his software. Subsequently, they tried to convince Novell's management to adopt GNU/Linux as the basis for advanced intranet tools. Had they succeeded - and they nearly did - things might have been very different today.

Glyn Moody welcomes your comments.