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Weekly Column

Technician, Steal Thyself: SCO, Not IBM, May Have Put Unix Code Into Linux Instead?

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

There is something about institutional memory, the way organizations do or don't remember things. Covering IBM back in the Opel and Akers eras, I noticed a very interesting thing about the way that company handled internal information, which was through the use of plausible deniability. There was a difference at IBM between knowing something and having it be known that you knew something. So when an IBMer would say he didn't know a fact or the answer to my question, it didn't always mean he lacked the information. It could just as easily have meant that he/she hadn't been BRIEFED on the information. Anything learned at the water cooler wasn't real. I wonder, then, how they handle institutional memory issues at SCO, our subject for the last couple weeks, because reality seems not to even be involved. Can it be that the very crime SCO is accusing IBM of committing could have been done, instead, by SCO itself? I think so.

Remember, SCO is suing IBM for stealing bits of Unix and putting those bits inside Linux. How IBM is supposed to have done that remains a mystery, because the only version of Linux that includes any IBM authorship claim is for the S/390 mainframes, and even that wasn't written by IBM. According to folks who did the work, it was done under contract to IBM by SuSE Linux AG, the German Linux vendor. IBM provided the hardware and some access to IBM mainframe engineers, but 98 percent of the work was done by SuSE. At Linuxworld 2000, IBM didn't even help with the install or configuration of Linux on the S/390 they loaned SuSE for the show.

Where, then, did IBM get those Unix parts it is supposed to have stolen? They certainly didn't come from IBM's version of Unix, AIX, which bears little internal similarity to any other Unix. I think the parts may have come from SCO, itself.

Here is where institutional memory ought to come into play but doesn't seem to be. Remember that the motto of the combined Caldera and SCO was "Unifying Unix with Linux for Business." It is very possible that SCO's Linux teamadded UnixWare and OpenServer code to Linux. They then sent their Linux developers to SuSE when United Linux was formed. Soon after that, CEO Ransom Love departed. Now the SCO management is scouring the UnixWare, OpenServer and Linux code bases and says that they are finding cut-and-pasted code. Chances are that their former employees put it there.

"Open Unix 8 is the first step in implementing the vision of the pending new company," said Ransom Love, president and CEO of Caldera Systems in a company press release way back when. "It combines the heritage of Unix with the momentum of Linux, and will be our premiere product for data intensive applications like database, email and supply chain management. The incorporation of the Linux application engine into the UnixWare kernel essentially redefines the direction of the product, and motivates a new brand identity -- Open Unix."

But wait, there's more! Here is what Ransom Love said to ZDNet around the same time:s

ZDNet: What does the future hold for your unified Linux/Unix platform?

Love: "When we talk about unifying Unix and Linux, the two have a huge amount in common. A lot of people are running their businesses on Unix, while Linux has a tremendous population on Web servers and other front-end servers. So we are taking both and combining them into one platform."

So SCO/Caldera spent two years "unifying" Unix and Linux and is now outraged to find some of their intellectual property in Linux. Well duh! That's exactly what they said they were going to do.

But does it even matter? As I noted last week, Novell retained the Unix patents and copyrights when it sold whatever it sold to SCO back in 1995. The best SCO can claim, given that Novell won't pursue a copyright or patent claim against IBM, is that IBM is in violation of its Unix license agreement.

WHAT license agreement?

That SCO/Novell deal from 1995 gets murkier and murkier when you add in the claims of The Open Group, a consortium that acquired the Unix trademark from Novell at the same time SCO wasn't acquiring the Unix copyrights or patents. "IBM's ability to call AIX a Unix system is due to its license from The Open Group," says the group's marketing vice-president Graham Bird. "This license requires IBM (and all other licensees) to warrant that it's certified products conform with the Single Unix Specification. So, SCO cannot yank IBM's right to call their certified products Unix, I'm delighted to say."

If SCO doesn't own the copyrights or patents, and it doesn't even have a sublicensing agreement with the organization that owns the trademark, what rights could they possibly intend to deny IBM as of June 13th?"

Nobody really knows.

There is an easy solution to this problem, one that I wouldn't be at all surprised is in the works. SCO is angling to be acquired by IBM in an out-of-court settlement. Certainly, IBM can afford to buy the Unix copyrights and patents from Novell and I think Novell would sell them. That would bring everything but the Unix trademark under the same roof. And I don't think IBM really cares that much about the Unix trademark. They care much more about the Linux trademark. So let's say IBM buys up all these rights for a few hundred million dollars, then puts the whole package under the General Public License, essentially making Unix into an Open Source product.

Why would IBM do something like that? They'd do it to sell more computers.

People forget that IBM is mainly a hardware and services company. By putting Unix under the GPL they would become heroes to the programmers and system admins and end up selling even more hardware and services. Remember, IBM already invested $1 billion in Linux and claimed to have made that money back within a year. Buying SCO and the Novell IP could be viewed as just the next step of that very smart investment.

Now for something both silly and sad. On Memorial Day, hundreds of AOL volunteers, some with a decade of service, were abruptly terminated with a form e-mail. There was no pre-warning of any kind, and none appear to have been related to performance issues.

There were hundreds of volunteers at AOL who monitored message boards to try to maintain some decorum and enforce AOL's terms of service. There were hundreds more volunteers who hosted chat rooms and guided the discussions to keep them roughly on topic, keep the language at an appropriate level for the chat group, and try to prevent personal attacks on themselves or another member. Volunteers were required to undergo generalized training for either chat or boards, and had to take annual refreshers. The volunteers were uncompensated and subject to immediate dismissal for any reason whatsoever. The only thing they got for their 50 plus hours a month of time was a no-charge basic AOL account. As a really old AOL volunteer told me, this firing was really shabby way of handling the situation. "AOL's increasingly shabby treatment of people like me is one of the reasons their results are in a tailspin," said my friend. "And as they auger in, I'll be rooting for the ground."

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