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Don't Be Chilled by Linux Lawsuits

Don't count on this mess being mopped up soon. SCO's suit against IBM, for instance, isn't due to go to trial until April 2005. Meanwhile, resist the temptation to cancel or delay your Linux implementations.

Certainly, take a pass on SCO's latest scheme, to dun companies $699 per single CPU implementation of Linux 2.4 or higher. Pay now, SCO says, before the price climbs to $1,399 on Oct. 15, and rest assured that the vendor's lawyers won't come knocking at your door. Of course, this posturing ignores the fact that no court has yet recognized SCO's claims to the Linux code--and likely never will.

In a paper written for the Open Source Development Labs, copyright expert Eben Moglen of Columbia University argues persuasively that Linux users may have a license for the software already. Moglen notes that SCO has distributed Linux under GPL for several years now, letting users freely distribute, copy and modify what the vendor now suddenly claims is "pirated" code. Even if Linux users don't have a license, he says, most copyrighted works don't require one.

By concentrating its collection efforts on Linux users and not on Linux vendors, distributors and developers, SCO is aiming at a much broader and less legally organized base--and thus one more likely to pony up some money. In fact, less than a week after detailing its Linux collection program, SCO announced it had signed its first licensee, though terms of that deal and the name of the Fortune 500 company weren't disclosed. (Perhaps it's a company that has an interest in muddying the Linux waters.)

Through it all, SCO insists that it's not the bad guy. Instead, the likes of Red Hat and IBM are the villains, SCO maintains, because their Linux contracts don't include indemnification clauses that shield customers from potential lawsuits. In other words: Don't blame us if we sue you for using Linux software that you bought in good faith from a third-party vendor; blame the vendor that sold you the software in good faith for not having protected you from opportunistic litigants like us.

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