How to score SCO's legal games

Now SCO's got Novell in its sights, but where is the company really aiming?

If organisations could feel grumpy about the past, Novell would have the blues so bad BB King should write the company anthem. Here is an outfit who owned corporate networking just at the point the market went stratospheric. Netware was to servers what Windows is to the desktop, and the company had an impeccable reputation for reliability and performance in an area where nothing else mattered. And they threw it all away.

It's an open secret that while Microsoft was going through its early and none too impressive experiments with networking -- Windows for Workgroups, anyone? -- it lived in fear of Novell waking up and sniffing the packets. But as the 90s wore on and the Redmond boys slowly got it right, the sleeping Utah giant stayed firmly beneath the duvet.

Then there was the Internet, which seemingly fell out of the empty sky like the Close Encounters mothership. Everyone rushed up and clambered to get aboard. Some got crushed in the panic, but Novell managed to pummel itself into the ground in a series of remarkably stupid moves, producing and withdrawing Web server products seemingly at whim. This was in keeping with the company's policy of acquisition: buying in things that seemed like a good idea at the time -- like Unix -- and failing to do anything with them except confuse the customers and lose another Salt Lakeful of dosh.

That was then. In buying SuSE Linux, Novell might be forgiven for being rather pleased with itself. A mature, well-respected, open-source distribution backed up with Novell's support and sales network seems like a good deal. Just the sort of solid base with which to create a 21st century networking company. What could go possibly happen? Madness, that's what -- but this time not of their making.

It's a fair bet they didn't expect a lawsuit from SCO. Yet here it is -- or rather, in keeping with that company's policy of driving into town and waving its shooters about, here's the threat. As part of its mid-90s, er, strategy, Novell sold Unix to SCO and included a non-competition clause in the contract. Since SCO claims that Linux is full of SCO's Unix-based intellectual property, it would seem entirely logical that any attempt by Novell to sell it would be ipso facto directly competitive. So, says SCO, once the deal goes through Novell should expect a hefty writ.

With SCO spraying out threats of legal action like a tomcat on diuretics, this latest piece of territorial widdle might seem like an attempt to put the legal frighteners on a competitor rather than a justifiable defence of SCO's core business -- unless SCO's core business now is taking people to court. The company is handing over hunks of shares to its lawyers: this can't be ruled out.

But is there anything to it? One may be expert in the details of Linux and Unix, and perhaps understand half what's going on: one may be a commercial lawyer and be comfortable with the other half. Trying to untangle the chimera at the interface of technology and law is enough to send anyone off to take up a simpler job, like quantum chromodynamics.

But hold on before you brush up your Feynman: there is one good thing that's come out of all this The unofficial nexus of the SCO affair is Groklaw, a bulletin board turned into a Web site. Here, you can find lawyers and code hackers busily engaged in pulling the bones out of every pronouncement that falls from the mouth of Darl McBride, CEO of SCO, and his merry men. SCO says it's sent IBM all the examples of the code it claims IBM infringes in Linux? Well, here's a Unix guy who's shown the 'infringing code' so produced was produced by a simple text search for certain words in the Linux source -- and proof of nothing at all.

As for the 'non-competing' clause in the Novell-SCO agreement: you can argue about exactly what it protects, and whether Linux has anything to do with it. People on Groklaw are doing just that, and it looks no more substantial than anything else SCO has said. But you can't argue with the fact that the same clause says that it will terminate if there's a change of control of SCO -- and in 2000, SCO was bought by Caldera. Steady your nerves, chaps.

Groklaw is a sterling example of Internet interdisciplinary cooperation between experts and concerned parties. The discussions are impassioned but controlled, and documenting arguments is the order of the day. Heavily spiced with links and excerpts from many sources, the rule is -- if you don't understand, ask. If you know something of import, tell.

When this whole sorry affair is over and BB King can get on with writing the Ballard Of Black Dog McBride, Groklaw will stand as a monument to how a community under threat can gather its resources and calmly set about restoring sanity in a hurricane of bluster. If anyone can find a way to bottle this, it may even all have been worth it.