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SCO suit could set nasty precedents for Linux

Should SCO Group manage to win its billion-dollar claim against IBM, or if IBM settles with SCO, other open-source developers could emerge looking for compensation for their contributions to Linux and other open-source projects.

As SCO Group and IBM Corp. prepare to tangle in court over intellectual property claims concerning portions of the Unix code that may have been donated by IBM to Linux developers, the open-source community continues to wonder what the future holds.

There are doomsday scenarios being painted by some. Others, meanwhile, choose to dismiss the charges as a last-gasp effort by a company trying to provide shareholders with a dividend.

Does the truth lie somewhere in the middle?

Should SCO Group win its billion-dollar suit against IBM, or if IBM decides to settle with SCO and pay unspecified damages, it could draw other would-be plaintiffs out of the woodwork, looking to collect on their contributions to Linux and other open-source projects. On the other hand, IBM could decide to fight SCO to the end and, should it win, it could champion itself as the Linux freedom fighter.

And lurking in the shadows is Microsoft, with plenty of incentive to see developers try to claim their fair share of the intellectual property pie and stand by while open-source development is stifled.

"If the open-source community has its way, the ideal situation is that IBM says 'no way' and wins the suit. That means big credibility for IBM in the open-source community," said Jeffrey Hewitt, a principal analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "The most likely scenario is that IBM will pay off SCO [in] some kind of settlement, and that will finish that. SCO shareholders will reap their benefit, and the rest of those people in the open-source community will play nice. This is not what they are about. Most don't go into open-source with the objective of becoming millionaires."

SCO filed suit March 6 alleging that IBM, an SCO Unix license holder, violated its license agreement by donating Unix code to the Linux community, a move that SCO says was designed to benefit the Linux-based aspects of IBM's business at the expense of Unix. The complaint also alleges that IBM contributed software developed as part of a now-defunct SCO-IBM initiative, which was code-named Monterey.

IBM spokesman Joe Stunkard responded, "Based on a quick read, the complaint is full of bare allegations with no supporting facts."

Most in the open-source community see SCO's move as having negligible impact on Linux. Many, in fact, believe this could be a ploy by SCO to entice IBM into buying out the Unix firm. SCO posted losses of more than $700,000 during its first fiscal quarter this year.

"SCO is presenting itself as suitable takeover material for those that want to see Linux fail. I doubt that the real big fish will bite: the Unix IP has been traded around a lot for comparatively low prices in recent decades," said David Kastrup, an open-source developer. "If it could be reliably exploited in the manner SCO thinks it [can], you can be sure that this would already have taken place earlier. In short, like a bad kamikaze pilot, I do expect to see SCO go down in flames and believe their expressed commitment to do so. But it appears rather dubious that they should be capable of inflicting the boasted damage. Considering that their market value is comparative peanuts to what is at stake, somebody might still consider it cheap enough to fall for their scheme."

Gartner's Hewitt, meanwhile, portrays the SCO-IBM dispute as an inevitability, and said he was surprised something like this had not happened earlier.

"Open-source is a relatively new area. It looked cool to so many in the software world, that they could contribute code to this community and change the world and unleash this thing on a world dominated by Microsoft," Hewitt said. "And not all of these people involved have huge amounts of business experience. Some do, but want to ignore that once something gets involved with big business and large amounts of money, classic business pressures take over.

"This is the basis of American business. Linux has done tremendous things, and there is high-growth potential in the Linux server business right now. The danger here is that everybody runs forward to claim their piece of it."

FOR MORE INFORMATION: news exclusive: "Linux analysts, users offer varied predictions on SCO suit" news exclusive: "SuSE CEO on SCO suit, UnitedLinux and more"

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