The Economist, August 28, 2003
Darl McBride, capitalist crusader against the commie horde of Linux users
SCO, for anyone who has never heard of the company, is pronounced "skoh", as in Scopes. Indeed "the SCO case" of 2003 sounds increasingly like the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, which pitted religious fundamentalists against progressives wanting to teach Darwin alongside the Bible in American classrooms. The SCO case plays the same role in a culture war now consuming the software industry. On one side are the equivalents of the fundamentalists--buttoned-down types clinging to proprietary and closed computer systems. Facing them are today's evolutionists--the pony-tailed set championing collaboration and openness in the form of Linux, an operating system that anybody can download and customise for nothing. The 1925 trial had a monkey as its symbol; the 2003 case has the Linux trademark, a cute penguin.
Leading the fundamentalists is Darl McBride, who was hired as SCO's chief executive a year ago. SCO was called Caldera at the time, and was in a sorry state. It distributed Linux, but was bad at it and made losses. Caldera had, however, recently bought the rights to UNIX, an old operating system, from a Californian firm, Santa Cruz Operations, which in turn had bought them from Novell, which had got them from AT&T. Mr McBride, like several directors at Caldera, has worked for Novell and is a devout Mormon. He seemed a natural choice to rescue the firm.
Immediately, he says, he started thinking about "how to monetise our assets"--ie, Caldera's rights to UNIX. Roughly as apes and humans allegedly have common ancestors, several operating systems can trace their lineage to UNIX, including Linux. Sure enough, says Mr McBride, he soon found "massive and widespread violations" of Caldera's intellectual property in the Linux code. At a more general level (and surprisingly for a Linux distributor), he found the entire free-software trend "communistic", he says: "We don't get the whole free-lunch thing."
So Mr McBride prepared for war. He changed Caldera's name to SCO (the initials of the less obscure Santa Cruz Operations), and hired David Boies, a lawyer who had gained an international reputation by representing the American government against Microsoft, and then Al Gore in the hanging-chads episode in Florida in 2000. Then he opened fire. In March, he sued IBM, a huge backer of Linux, for damages of $1 billion, later upping this to $3 billion. In June, he opened a new front by threatening 1,500 companies that use Linux. In July, he said that licence fees would be $699 per server.
At first, industry gossip was that Mr McBride's strategy was simply to manoeuvre IBM into ending SCO's misery by buying the firm. There were precedents. Before Mr McBride's time, Caldera's owners once profitably sued Microsoft. And in 1998, Mr McBride himself won what he calls a "seven-figure settlement" by suing his employer at the time, IKON Office Solutions (who, he says, had breached contract by urging him to move to an office outside Utah). The Linux battle, however, "is not about suing but about doing the right thing," Mr McBride insists.
Be that as it may, IBM shows absolutely no inclination to buy SCO. Instead, in August, IBM sued right back, charging that SCO has violated the open-source licence that governs Linux (which SCO, after all, has been distributing) and infringed four of IBM's own UNIX patents. Meanwhile, SCO has become widely hated. In a cruel irony, the boss of Novell, Mr McBride's alma mater, wrote a letter ("Dear Darl") arguing that SCO is confused about what it owns and challenging SCO to end the "vagueness" of its accusations. SUSE, the biggest European distributor of Linux, has taken SCO to court in Germany. In August, Red Hat, the world's biggest Linux distributor, did the same in America.
What most bothers the open-sourcers is SCO's refusal to reveal which lines of code it considers problematic. "Here are these people who claim we are pirates but refuse to say where and how," says Bruce Perens, an open-source evangelist. After all, he says, remedying the situation would be "trivially easy". The Linux "community"--numberless hobby hackers--would simply converge on the code and rewrite it within hours or days.
Mr McBride argues that he cannot reveal the detailed code that SCO lays claim to because to do so would be, in effect, "open-sourcing" it--which to his mind would be capitulating to communism. He will show the code, he adds, to anybody who signs a non-disclosure agreement--but what use would it be for a Linux hacker to see the code but forever shut up about it? On August 18th, Mr McBride seemed to give in a bit by showing a few slides of partially encrypted code in a Las Vegas conference room. Somebody took a photo and showed it to Mr Perens, who found that the lines have been published so many times over the years that a simple Google search will point to them. Legally, the sample seems a non-issue.
In terms of impact, however, it is an issue. SCO has caused enough uncertainty that technology consultancies, such as Gartner and Yankee Group, are advising clients to wait and see before adopting Linux. This certainly suits the rest of the fundamentalist camp, above all Microsoft, whose proprietary Windows operating system is Linux's most bitter rival. It has not gone unnoticed that Microsoft is one of the few companies that has actually paid SCO for a Linux licence, even though Microsoft has no use for one. Microsoft and SCO vehemently deny that they are in league, but most open-sourcers assume that the evil Redmond giant is bankrolling a mercenary.
Thus the two sides are digging into their trenches. "We're absolutely not going away, and they're not giving up, so we got a big problem," says Mr McBride. Like the fundamentalists of 1925, he may end up being a footnote in history; or he may arrest the Linux evolution. As yet, it is too early to tell.