Who Shot Darl McBride?

The SCO saga has all the elements of soap opera but like the best drama, it's teaching us some unexpected lessons about the future

There's been nothing like it since Dallas hit our screens quarter of a century ago. Colourful characters, plot twists and suspense? Check. Good versus evil, powerful men versus noble innocents, billions of dollars in the balance? Yep. We even have judges, guns and mysterious briefcases: as pure drama, l'affaire SCO cannot be faulted. Yet there may be a bigger surprise at the end than anyone guessed.

Whoever's writing the script threw in a doozie last week: Daddy wants his money back -- or does he? Baystar, the group of capitalists that on Microsoft's tip-off gave SCO $20m to establish control over Linux, publicly said that it wanted out. And then it shut up.

That statement alone was a crippling blow to SCO, whose share price promptly shed nearly half its value. If one of the two major backers for the expedition thinks the game is up, why would judges, juries, investors and customers think any different? SCO's reaction was typically loud, self-pitying and blisteringly ironic -- Baystar hasn't told us what the problem is exactly, it said. And if we don't know the details, how can we respond? For a company that has consistently fought to avoid revealing any substantive details of its own legal claims, this is rich stuff indeed.

After a week of letting the company swing in the breeze, Baystar today amplified its position via an interview in the New York Times. It still has faith in the basic intellectual property claims of SCO, it says, but not in SCO's management. More precisely, it wants SCO to concentrate on the case and stop mouthing off in public -- and while it's at it, it should ditch its software products.

Expect SCO to comply or die. There are two reasons for this. Whether or not it could afford the financial hit and whether or not it can be forced to return the money -- neither is clear -- it cannot afford to have Baystar as an enemy for any length of time. The best reason, though, is simple: Baystar is dead right on all counts.

Disposing of the software issue first, as SCO should have done last year: nobody will ever want to buy software from the company again. It's not very good, it's miles behind the competition and you run the risk that your supplier will slap a lawsuit on you if you so much as look at a penguin. SCO has no future in developing or selling software, and pretending that it does is a drain on the company's resources, focus and remaining credibility.

But SCO's biggest problem is Darl McBride's mouth. Every time the man breathes out, the sparks of controversy burst into flame. He and his cronies have been cruising the world in search of soapboxes from which to shrilly preach their fundamentalist stance; that SCO begat Unix and Unix begat Linux and by golly it's time to honour thy grandfather. Normally, supporting your company in public is a perfectly respectable pastime, but when you're trying to build a house of cards, the last thing you should do is blow hard and wave your hands like a madman.

And with each pronouncement, the armies of opposition get more ammunition. Imagine what would have happened if SCO had filed its court case, then done a Baystar and shut the flip up. There would still be speculation, of course, but at a hundredth of today's levels. Each florid pronouncement from Darl and his henchmen has spawned a new thread in Groklaw and hundreds of nit-picking replies. Each statement provokes a scurry back through the archives for context and rebuttal: each little Darling grain is swiftly turned into a pearl. By now Groklaw's Pamela Jones has a string of the things that would make Marge Simpson jealous.

Not so good for Darl, who is currently looking down the barrel of Baystar's corporate Magnum, but the result has been great for the rest of us. We've enjoyed a free first-class education in the esoteric world of intellectual property and corporate shenanigans. This is the planet on which the major IT wars of the 21st century will be fought -- before SCO, few of us knew this, let alone had much chance of getting a map of the place. We've learned once again that the online community can inherit the traditional power of the press to battle the biggest monsters -- again, mapping out the shape of things to come.

This isn't Dallas -- it's not soap opera at all. It's reality TV. We might be watching, but we're also the actors on stage. The story without us would be very different: this sort of realisation triggers revolution.

Baystar knows all this too, and doesn't appreciate our schooling at its expense. It's almost certainly too late to fix SCO, but by killing its management and keeping the IP claims on life support, something may be retrieved -- even if it's only face, an invaluable commodity in the venture-capital community. That it would be forced to make this move in public, a sanction that is indistinguishable to SCO from the threat of a massive legal fine and the judicial removal of its officers, marks an exceptional moment in modern capitalism.

The rules of the game for future players are now ice-clear: anything you say will be taken down and analysed for thousands of hours by people with access to all the resources of the Net. You better be right, or you better keep quiet: justice, free software style. Today is the day the law went open source.