A 2001 legal dispute over Linux code leaves open the possibility that a company could charge a fee for its use.

When GNU/Linux is considered an operating system of the Unix family of systems, many people tend to think that the former was developed using code from the latter, the original Unix developed by AT&T. But this is not the case: Linux (what we properly call “Linux”, i.e. the kernel of the system) has the same relationship with Unix as ReactOS has with the Windows

it’s a clone, written from scratch to work very similar to the original (which makes it easier to port applications), but it’s not a derivative. In fact, to be precise, Linux is a clone of another clone.because its immediate reference when it was created was another Unix-based operating system: MINIX.

Thanks to this, we were able to deduce that none of the several legal issues surrounding ownership of rights to Unix operating system code today it should splash linux in any way. However, the reality is a bit more complex.

When IBM opted for Linux… and the ‘brown mess’

Let’s locate ourselves. 1993: Novell buys AT&T Unix Systems Laboratories (along with the intellectual property of products developed there). At the end of the same year, Novell resells said division to Santa Cruz Operation. However, the latter does not buy all of its intellectual property rights, but part of them remains in the hands of Novell.

1998: Santa Cruz Operation joins other major corporations, including giant Intel and IBM, to form the “Monterey Project”, with the goal of jointly developing a version of Linux capable of running on multiple hardware platforms.

2001: IBM (owner of a Unix derivative called AIX) verifies that the Linux community is more successful in carrying out the task of the Monterey project than this, so he decides to abandon it and continue to support Linux. As part of this support, contributes parts of AIX code to kernel development of Linux.

Problem? That IBM had developed these parts of AIX after they began working with the Monterey project, so The Santa Cruz operation felt that its former partners were using their own contributions to bolster a Unix business rival.


Unix, a hell of a technological “dinosaur”. (Image from ‘Jurassic Park’)

Bankruptcies, divisions and fragmentation of rights on Unix

That same year, Santa Cruz Operation decided to get rid of Unix and sold its Unix rights to an independent subsidiary called Caldera, who will be the one to take legal action against IBM and RedHat in 2003 claiming to be the owner of the code provided by IBM and already included in the Linux kernel.

For four years, the Linux community has feared the possible legal consequences of this labyrinthine trial. Until Caldera, then renamed SCO Group, went bankrupt in 2007, lost first Linux lawsuit, another against Novell related to his Unix rights and is also the subject of defamation suits from RedHat and SUSE.

Four years later, in 2011, SCO Group rights are sold to UnXis (currently Xinuos)but the first (renamed again TSG Group) maintains its active lawsuit against IBM and company, achieve that in 2013 a judge reactivated the case.

At this stage we have the old Unix rights scattered between three companies that we know: a large technology company (Novell), a bankrupt company (SCO/TSG Group) and a developer of Unix systems for servers (Xinuos).

Sco Boiler Xinuos

Several of the brands/companies that have clashed with IBM over the rights to some of the Linux code.

All the while, the case has been dormant…but I live in court, as the Linux community continued to develop its operating system and the lawyers continued to cash in on each other’s stubbornness. A stubbornness that is not exceptional given the price at stake

…the ability to claim partial ownership of a core that not only now has many more desktop users than it did in 2003…but also is present at the heart of the predominant operating system in the mobile sector (android)by installing millions of new units every year.

Let’s imagine for a moment how much cannon revenue could be that is, if one of the heirs to Operation Santa Cruz ultimately wins a victory in court.

A door is closing, but recently another has opened

A year ago, however, we learned that the legal process had abruptly stopped for TSG Group: the judicial receiver that the State of Delaware appointed to oversee the company recommended reach an agreement with IBM to close the case before “the uncertain final success of the claims” of TSG against her. In exchange, IBM will contribute $14.25 million which will provide cash to its dying rival.

Case closed? Well no! Because remember that TSG Group sold its rights to Unix to Xinuos, which in March 2021 filed its own lawsuit against IBM, in which it even asked that the courts annul its acquisition of RedHat (for 34,000 million dollars), filed as part of a “conspiracy” against UNIX.

IBM has dismissed their claims as “baseless” – and, of course, it seems unlikely that a court will force it to drop RedHat in the foreseeable future – but, in any event, this Xinuos lawsuit keeps the door open for a possible earthquake in the software world when it could have been completely closed.

An earlier version of the article was published in 2021.

Main picture | Extract from the BBC documentary “Seven Worlds, One Planet”

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