Tragedy to farce--the SCO vs. IBM lawsuit

Eric S. Raymond

May 22, 2003

It's been said that history repeats itself -- the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. When AT&T; commercialized Unix after 1984, that was tragedy. SCO's lawsuit against IBM is the farce.

Unix originated at Bell Labs in 1969 as a hobby project, and flourished through the 1970s because it was so good people couldn't stand not to be using it. Thousands of developers at universities, laboratories, and corporations all over the world contributed code to it, anticipating today's open-source style of development two decades before it got a brand name. Bell Labs knew that many of the contributors were in technical violation of its license terms, but winked at the bootlegging because they were adding to the value of the system.

When the Bell System divestiture in 1984 left AT&T; free to enter the computer business, AT&T; closed the Unix code. In retrospect, this was a tragedy. Torn apart by squabbling proprietary vendors and cut off from the imagination and vitality of the early Unix hackers, Unix went into decline and left a vacuum for Microsoft's shockingly inferior software to enter. Only with the explosive rise of Linux after 1993 did Unix recover its early dynamism.

In the 1990s, the AT&T; codebase seemed increasingly irrelevant, surpassed by more modern Unixes like Solaris, AIX and Linux itself. AT&T; handed off the code to Unix Systems Laboratories, then the code went to Novell, and finally in 1995 to Caldera, which bought the SCO name and rights in 2001. The Linux community, happily roaring along from success to success in the late 1990s, neither needed nor wanted any part of the old Unix codebase.

By 2003, Caldera had been selling Linux for eight years, losing money hand over fist at it. Nobody cared about the old Unix code Caldera had bought along with the SCO name, either. Caldera's bosses remembered that their last serious hit of cash came from a settlement with Microsoft over anti-competitive maneuvering against the DR DOS operating system (which Caldera had not developed, but bought from Digital Research in order to pursue the lawsuit).

According to SCO's 10-Qs, they have less than a year of cash reserves left in the bank. "What have we got to lose?" they must have thought. So, in late 2002, they cut their burn rate by laying off a large percentage of the people who actually know...products, sold off a bunch of fixed assets, and got ready to sue the handiest set of deep pockets. This happened to be IBM.

Thus, from tragedy proceeded farce. Caldera doesn't have a case. Its public statements are not just full of lies; they're full of lies that can easily be falsified just by looking at Caldera's own past press releases. (A number of these are in the Open Source Initiative's position paper [ ] on the lawsuit.) Their story changes from week to week. First the kernel wasn't involved, now it is. First there was no action contemplated against Linux distributors, then there was. And recently McBride's merry crew has been threatening Linux customers. This is the desperate thrashing of a company that is hoping somebody will buy them out just to shut them up.

The SCO vs. IBM lawsuit might have remained low comedy, nothing but the routine sort of greed-head maneuvering we've come to expect whenever a company with a pathetically weak product line starts to rave on about defending intellectual property rights. But SCO did something exceptionally stupid this time. They insulted the people who actually wrote the code they were selling.

In order to make its case against IBM, Caldera has had to push the claim that Linux was a pathetic makeshift until the corporate hand of IBM injected into it secrets stolen from the ancient Unix code. Besides being ludicrously false, this enraged every Linux developer on the planet. Accusing us of trafficking in stolen goods was bad; implying that we were incompetent was far worse.

OSI's dissection of SCO's case was published just four days after the original complaint against IBM. SCO's early statements suggest that it thought it could somehow pacify the Linux community into staying out of its attempted shakedown against IBM — but, recognizing both the insult and the threat this lawsuit poses, hundreds of programmers from all over the world have written to help amplify and develop the counter-case. In many cases they have supplied important documentary evidence of SCO's mendacity.

And it's not just Linux programmers who are angry. Much of the mail is coming in from old Unix hands who are finally, terminally fed up with the theory that any one corporation owns the code they spent two decades writing before Linux even existed. Morally, if not legally, the Unix code belongs to the hacker community that wrote it -- the same community that gave the world the Internet and the World Wide Web, and is now behind open-source software.

It was barely tolerable when AT&T; claimed to own our work; they at least employed the Bell Labs crew that wrote the original Unix system. But Darl McBride and his co-complainants are mere carpetbaggers who own the old codebase only by an accident of history. For them to attempt to parlay it into a controlling lock on today's Unix and Linux is beyond outrageous.

We've seen a lot of abuses in the name of intellectual property rights in the last five years. What outfits like the MPAA and RIAA have done to consumers' fair-use rights is appalling. But SCO's case, if it is upheld, could be far worse. It's a power-grab against the open-source future, a direct threat to the hacker culture that keeps the Internet running and remains the only serious rival to the Microsoft monopoly.

In Unix's early days, IBM was what Microsoft is now — the deadly monopoly that everybody else in the tech industry loves to hate. But today, as SCO's target, they're on the side of the future, and their fight is ours too.

Eric S. Raymond is an observer-participant anthropologist in the Internet hacker culture. His research has helped explain the decentralized open-source model of software development. His own software projects include one of the Internet's most widely-used email transport programs. He is also a science fiction fan, a musician, an activist for the First and Second Amendments, and a martial artist with a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. His home page is at

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