It's a sad, sad thing when a member of the family goes psycho. I mean really psycho. I mean that Charlie-Manson-"helter skelter"-eyes kind of psycho.
Of course, I refer to the recent "we own your ass" statements by SCO to commercial Linux users that somehow they are infringing on SCO's copyrights and intellectual property. That is sad, very sad. So sad that it really raises my blood pressure.
As far as I can see, it's all smoke and mirrors and it threatens to temporarily slow momentum for a product (Linux) that could theoretically challenge Microsoft in significant segments of the operating systems market. To understand why it is all so much hokum, one has to understand how the intellectual property system in much of the world works. When it comes to developing new innovations in the fields of computer science and engineering, two things come into being:
To give a fanciful example, one could invent an idea that would be about "chemically altering water to produce a high energy reaction capable of doing mechanical work" and then embodying that idea in the form of "a car engine that runs on water".
- An idea, often backed up by some kind of theoretical analysis, that is published in an article for a journal, a paper at a conference, or in a patent, and,
- An embodiment of that idea, in the form of an implementation in a product.
It is also useful to note that the two things can be legally separate. The inventor who first comes up with the idea to alter water so that it can be used for fuel can build a car engine that runs on water. Or, someone else can use inventor's idea to make their own engine that runs on water (in competition with the inventor's engine) and pay the inventor a royalty for using it. In that case, the engine builder will own the design for the engine, but the inventor will own the idea of how to use water to power that engine. In fact that inventor can license his idea to as many companies or people as he wants, and still own the idea. That's how the system works.
A further wrinkle involves the fact that software can be copyrighted as well as be the embodiment of a patent. This is to say that just as you cannot make photocopies of a whole book or push MP3's out on the Net without paying the copyright holder a royalty, you cannot re-distribute software without paying the copyright holder a royalty. I don't know exactly why, but I believe that this derives from the fact that things like books, recorded music, and software can be reproduced fairly easily and therefore deserve additional protection when it comes to reproduction and distribution.
Well, SCO holds the copyrights to an old operating system called Unix, developed by AT&T back in the 1970's. Unix has been around so long that its features have become the basis for a standard for certain types of operating systems. This is like the Model T Ford being the basis for describing a lot of people expected later after in terms of cars... four wheels, an enclosed cabin, a spare tire. In the case of operating systems, this means that Unix provided the first implementation of a lot of ideas and ways of programming that programmers came to expect in all operating systems.
"Real" Unix has been in trouble for the last few years. Yes, there are a few large companies like Sun and IBM that based their propietary operating systems (called Solaris and AIX) on Unix because they got a license from AT&T and originally adapted Unix for their needs. By and large, however, the features and ways to write programs used by Unix have become so widespread that programmers don't feel the need to get "real" Unix anymore. The business revenues on real Unix have dropped appropriately. The ownership of the original "real" Unix has changed hands a lot in the last 10 years, and is currently owned by SCO.
One of the major reasons why real Unix doesn't sell so well anymore is because of Linux. Linux conforms to a set of standards that allow Linux to look and act like "real" Unix in all the ways that programmers expect. It is also developed completely in the open with a copyright license that promotes sharing and is free. So why buy "real" Unix when a free product works about as well and has nearly everything that a programmer wants?
Well, this is where SCO goes really psycho. They see the handwriting on the wall as far as how Linux will affect their revenue on "real" Unix, and make some astounding claims:
The first idea is fairly ludicrous because IBM is nothing if not fully aware of its legal responsibilities. You can be sure that the people who worked on Linux were properly briefed by lawyers... because IBM knew it would be in trouble if its engineers copied code from AIX to Linux. The second idea borders on unrealistic because it is legally possible for someone who owns an idea to put it in "real" Unix and Linux without SCO owning it. Finally, the last two ideas are absolutely insane. Linux was developed in full view of everyone, including SCO. SCO even distributed Linux for a time. To suddenly claim that even parts of Linux are owned by SCO would be like Ford saying "we built the Model T, it has four wheels, a Chevrolet has four wheels, therefore we must own part of General Motors". To also suddenly claim that Linux users somehow owe SCO some money is like saying "you drive a Chevy, and even though you bought it legally and own it free and clear, you owe Ford money because it has four wheels."
- that IBM, which works on both AIX (it's own "real" Unix to which SCO has some claims) and Linux, copied code directly from AIX to Linux,
- that ideas which were implemented for the first time in "real" Unix by various companies over the years are actually part of Unix and therefore somehow owned by SCO,
- the fact that these same ideas were also put into Linux means that Linux is somehow partly owned by SCO, and
- the people who use Linux for profit somehow owe SCO money because of copyright violation even when they aren't redistributing Linux.
It's like Jack Nicholson running with an axe in The Shining screaming "Heeeerrre's Johnny!!!" It's psycho. It makes my blood boil.
on 2003-07-25 at 10:37 a.m.
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