Saturday, 12 June 2010

Stake through the heart?

S.C.O. is finally really dead ... we hope.

When you are a patent troll, you make your money by intimidating other companies into paying license fees on the "properties" you hold. You usually rely on the fact that all technology is built out of other technology - in the case of software, this can involve thousands of patents for a single computer program: nobody really knows who owns what.

The trick is to pick a target who is (a) big enough to pay up and (b) too small to fight back in court. It helps if you hold the patents you claim you do, and if the target is actually infringing on them, but if the target cannot afford to fight back it is all the same. It also helps if you hit up only one company at a time and if your charges are such that it is more cost-effective to pay up than to go to court.

SCO had had some success by this method with lesser entities when it got ambitious and targeted IBM over the way it used UNIX. SCO had just grown, and IBM is not what it used to be. Must have looked tempting.

They claimed that IBM had breached contract with some of its uses of UNIX related products. One of the uses involved donated code to the linux project.


Thing is - linux is not developed by just a few companies but by individuals sharing their labour and expertise with many companies. This meant that SCO had just threatened, not just IBM, but dozens of other Forbes 500 companies and several million linux developers. IBM decided to fight back, and recieved a lot of support to do so.

Still, SCO looked good at this stage and many pundits were predicting a win for them and the demise of linux as well. Some noticed that Novell appeared to have legal use of the infringing bits so perhaps SUSE linux would be the last distro standing when the dust cleared.

Novell, realised: "wait a minute, don't we own this stuff outright?" And sure enough, back when Novell was part of a nasty proprietary company themselves, they had licensed the administration of those UNIX bits to another company which was purchased by SCO but had not actually parted with them. (See how complicated it gets?)

So Novell sued back, claiming that SCO was overstepping their rights.

The court agreed - SCO was suing over claimed property that it did not own in the first place. This process took about eight years and vast sums of money during which SCO tried to win by delay and attrition. Only the combination of all the companies they'd annoyed meant there was no way, which had become obvious about 2-4 years in. They raised some funds by threatening smaller companies, who paid up, and by a weird deal with Microsoft. The court transcripts make entertaining reading and provide an object lesson about the idiocy of software patents.

SCO was bankrupt, their lawyers successfully filed to make sure they got paid before shareholders did and the accountants abandoned ship. It was over - or so we thought.

The zombie lurches back to life, SCO cries foul, and another round of combat by court commences. That has now finished. It never had a chance in the first place and the judge gave pretty short statements to the effect of "Shut up and go away." The case is formally closed.

It is the nature of the undead that they seem to keep coming back for the sequel. We've had SCOvsIBM and SCO2: the Resurrection, now we await the Bride of SCO, no doubt in production. Maybe one of those remakes that are so popular?

SCO stock is basically worthless, but the company probably still owns some actionable patents which could pass, T-Virus-style, into another host. Similarly, SCO executives will have been looking far work and their lawyers, who failed to advise their client to stop being silly even after it was obvious, are still in business. Thus, though this particular attack is clearly no longer possible, it is likely we have not heard the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment