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How did we get here?

© May 2004 Tony Lawrence

Regardless of how you feel about SCO's IP claims, it is interesting to remember how we got here: Linux began because a university student couldn't afford a Unix OS.

There is no doubt whatsoever that Linus Torvald's effort to create Linux was an effort to clone Unix. Linus wasn't inventing a new operating system; he was deliberately trying to create a Unix-like OS. In that sense at least, this is "theft". I've tried to think of any analogy where someone could set out to deliberately copy a proprietary product and expect to get away with it. It's easy enough to run afoul of someone else's IP if your original intentions were for something entirely different, but when you start out with the idea of creating a knock-off, you are really treading on thin ice.

Yet until this suit, Linux was ignored. Not even ignored: SCO, the apparent holder of these IP rights, even contributed code to Linux! How did this happen? SCO says (quoting from the above referenced article):

SCO's explanation for why it took so long to come forward (another
controversial topic) is that it took some time before it discovered
what it believes to be misappropriated Unix IP in Linux. The company
expected to have the legal leverage necessary to make sure that
new or old licensees couldn't undermine their business and, based
on that expectation, is now attempting to use that leverage.

Of course there is also the matter that Novell says that they are the ones who own the IP:

 Novell on the other hand, claims that when it comes to pre-existing
 licensees, SCO has no such leverage and that Novell intended it
 that way when the sale was made, and when it signed both the
 original contract and the amendment to it.

Now, SCO didn't buy whatever it bought until 1995, so if anybody was going to complain about Linux before that, it would have to be Novell. Novell has been saying it still has the rights, but apparently isn't pursuing them. I'm not entirely clear on why Linux folk find that comforting: yes, Novell has bought Ximian and Suse, but has it said outright "Here Linux, all our IP is yours now"? Nope. So Novell's Linux friendly attitude could change. Conceivably, they could start a suit similar to SCO's whenever they liked.

But never mind that: let's go back to 1995. Admittedly Linux wasn't the big success it is today, but neither was it invisible. Your radar would have to be non-functional to be unaware of Linux in 1995, and certainly neither SCO nor Linux were that clueless. Would you purchase IP rights of any kind without some mention of and concern about an obvious knock-off in the marketplace? Never mind who sold what to whom, is it conceivable that this elephant in the living room could really be ignored? Admittedly it was a smaller elephant then, but it was still bumping into tables and a lot of folks were worrying about the china even then.

So why would SCO buy (or think it was buying) IP that was obviously under attack by a clone? I don't have an answer, but perhaps someone does.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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Some people have objected loudly to my use of "theft", apparently thinking this is an anti-Linux piece and that I am calling Linus and everyone else involved with Linux rotten thieving scoundrels.

That's not the case, and I deliberately put the word in quotes and said "in that sense" to avoid that interpretation.

If anything, this is more of an anti-SCO piece than anti-Linux: if Linux was "stealing" IP, why wasn't anyone squawking about it back then? Apparently SCO and everyone else felt that Linux was a legitimate "clone" and that there were no IP issues.

SCO can argue now that *present* Linux violates their IP (if it is theirs at all, of course), but some of their more recent noise seems to go beyond that to imply that the whole durn thing (or large parts of it) is an illegal knock-off. That's what triggered these thoughts for me.


By the way, why do these people send me email rather than just commenting here?


"Linus wasn't inventing a new operating system; he was deliberately trying to create a Unix-like OS. In that sense at least, this is 'theft'."

No more so than Lotus copying the look and feel of VisiCalc, eh? I also suppose we could accuse Louis and Gaston Chevrolet of theft, since they produced a car that was a lot like the one that Ford fellow built. Had a steering wheel, just like Ford's, an engine, a trans...need I go on?

It's very difficult to invent anything that is truly novel. After all, human beings have had thousands of years to cobble up all sorts of contraptions and stuff.


Well, in the Visicalc case, they did try to fight it - and lost. Similar things happened in the automobile industry.

But that wasn't the point.. it WASN'T theft, there was apparently nothing to object to then, but now Darl and friends are acting as though it was.


My point too was that the development of Linux wasn't theft by any measure. Independent development of substantially similar whatevers is very common. And, as any programmer knows, there are some things that come out the same way no matter who's doing the coding. There are only a few ways, for example, to effectively code a quick-sort. So I guess it is inevitable that some duplication between UNIX and Linux would occur.

Darl and his whackos need to get a life, and perhaps start sending out resumes.


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