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12/23/2003 Archived Entry: "Laughing at SCO"

"Header files?"

That exclamation, in varying tones of laughter and disbelief, echoed around the Linux community yesterday as the SCO Group revealed the list of files which they allege is their "intellectual property" in Linux. Yes, friends, they've identified five files which appear to be the same in Linux and SCO Unix. Here's why this is such a joke.

In the first place, header files normally don't contain any program code. These are files which specify the interface between programs. For example, one of them (errno.h) specifies which numbers are used by the operating system to report various error conditions. Another (signal.h) specifies which numbers are used to send certain messages between programs. As you can imagine, programs which work together must agree on these, so it's no surprise that almost all Unix/Linux programs share this information.

Here's the best non-computer parallel I've come up with: it's as though you wrote a cookbook, and someone else said you'd copied their cookbook, because though all the recipes are different, you have the same table of weights and measures (1 cup = 8 oz., 1 tbsp. = 3 tsp.) on the inside cover.

I am not a lawyer, nor am I a Linux expert, but I'm aware of at least four different defenses to this pathetically ridiculous attack. I understand that:

1. Interface specifications rarely are subject to copyright protection. (There's a doctrine in copyright law which basically holds that if there's only one way to say something, and two people say it that way, then one hasn't copied it from the other.)

2. These particular interface specifications have long been published as part of an open computer standard.

3. The provenance of these files is well established; apparently these files in the Linux kernel were written by Linus Torvalds himself, back around version 0.01.

4. At any rate, these files are also part of the open-source BSD (Berkeley) Unix, which anyone is free to use under the terms of the BSD license; AT&T and Unix Systems Laboratories conceded this to the University of California long ago.

After almost a year, this is what they've come up with? If there was any doubt in my mind that this is merely a calculated campaign of media spin, bluster, and market manipulation, that doubt is now gone. (I'm sure it's no coincidence that they released this list on the same day they issued their disappointing financial report.) SCO has made themselves the laughingstock of the computing community.

As though that weren't enough, Novell has thrown a spanner into the works by registering their own copyright for Unix. This means SCO can no longer claim to hold the Unix copyright -- the copyright is contested, and needs to be decided by a court. This will impede any infringement suits that SCO was hoping to launch against high-profile Linux users.


P.S. On reflection, one thing this has taught me is never to trust a stock market analyst on technical stocks. Of all the people following the SCO case, the analysts I've read have been consistently the most clueless...exhibiting no understanding of the technical issues or the merits of the case. Anyone who could rate SCO stock a "buy" would also rate lottery tickets a "buy" based on their "strong upside potential."

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