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SCO Adds Twist to Linux Case by Displaying Code

The sample used in the firm's flagship version of Unix is traced to 1973 -- before the software company existed.

August 20, 2003|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

The software company that claims to own key pieces of the free Linux operating system undermined its case this week by displaying samples of the disputed code -- which critics then traced back to a decades-old program released with few restrictions.

SCO Group Inc. set off a firestorm in the technology world this year by suing IBM Corp., alleging that the computing giant improperly contributed SCO-owned code to Linux. For years, SCO and its predecessor have owned the rights to much of an operating system called Unix, which much of Linux imitates.

SCO's lawsuit angered supporters of Linux, who feel strongly that the software -- developed by programmers who donated their efforts -- should be free. IBM has countersued SCO. Another lawsuit by Linux distributor Red Hat Inc. accuses SCO of trying to scare off Linux users.

SCO has pressed Linux users to sign a licensing agreement to avoid being sued.

The conflict took an odd turn Monday in Las Vegas, where SCO is holding a conference for its Unix users, investors and others. During a slide show presentation, executives displayed identical lines of code from Linux and from SCO's flagship version of Unix, known as System V.

They wanted to show that the Linux code was an illegal copy of System V.

An audience member took pictures, which were published on the Web site of a German computer magazine. Although some of the lines had been rendered in Greek letters for the presentation, technologists studied the pictures and simply translated them back.

The result, they said, was code dating back as far as 1973, before SCO came into being.

Since Lindon, Utah-based SCO later bought the rights to old code, that wouldn't by itself destroy SCO's legal case. But it doesn't help SCO's claim that its most sophisticated intellectual property has been used to make Linux robust enough for corporate computers.

"This is hardly rocket science," said Bruce Perens, a programmer who champions Linux. "If that's the best they have to offer, their case isn't going to fly."

The Web site lwn.net, formerly called Linux Weekly News, concluded that SCO "may yet have an interesting contract dispute with IBM, but, from what we have seen so far, its claims of direct copying of code are hollow."

SCO itself released the code for use by other developers in early 2002, asking only that it get credited in writing, Perens and others said.

SCO, though, was steadfast.

"Their assertions are incorrect. The source code is absolutely owned by SCO," said Chris Sontag, general manager of the company's software licensing arm. "In fact, SCO knows exactly which version of System V the code came from." SCO declined to answer additional questions.

Red Hat and IBM declined to comment.

SCO shares slipped 13 cents Tuesday to $10.47 on Nasdaq.

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