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2/18/2004
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Linux Is No Threat to the Economic Recovery

With its Linux lawsuit foundering, SCO is trying to convince lawmakers that open source software hurts the U.S. economy and threatens national security. Opinion, by Network Computing editor in chief Rob Preston.

The year-old SCO-Linux melodrama may have finally "jumped the shark." Faced with the reality that Linux shops won't be intimidated into forking over licensing fees and that the courts probably won't rule in SCO's favor, CEO Darl McBride is appealing to lawmakers. In a letter to Congress, McBride claims open-source software hurts the U.S. economy, makes it difficult for U.S. software makers to compete abroad, discourages technological innovation and threatens national security. We also hear SCO is bringing in Ted McGinley as general counsel.

Let's break down McBride's four main arguments.

1. The fragile U.S. economic recovery could be thrown off track by widening adoption of open-source software. This argument is grounded in the notion that proprietary software is good for the economy because it carries a fee. That is, software is virtuous because it generates profits for software developers and tax revenues for governments, not because it's valuable to the companies that use it. It's like arguing that Big Oil must be protected from energy innovations because the oil giants stand to hire more people and pay more taxes than upstarts would. But what of the myriad businesses and consumers that would benefit from cheaper energy?

Open-source software may not line vendor and government coffers outright, but what of the efficiencies corporate users gain and the supporting commerce that emerges? Just because open-source software might hurt the likes of Microsoft and Sun doesn't mean the business they lose won't be offset many times over by gains elsewhere in the economy.

2. Instead of using Windows or Unix, governments in Europe and Asia are moving to Linux, attracted by its low cost. U.S. vendors of competing software are suffering abroad because of Linux's "predatory" pricing model. It's touching that the SCO chief is so concerned about Microsoft and Sun, but if governments and other customers abroad deem Linux superior to Unix and Windows, that's their right. With predatory pricing, manufacturers set prices below costs with the intention of inflating prices once they've cornered the market. This has never been the strategy of open-source vendors or developers.

Unless it can be proved that Linux developers are breaking the law (more on that below), there's nothing objectionable about Linux unseating pricier software at customer sites worldwide.

3. Open-source software discourages tech innovation because it "frees the software that is proprietary, licensable and a source of income" from its developers. Here, McBride reiterates SCO's claim that Linux infringes the company's Unix intellectual property rights, but he goes on to argue that other open-source programs necessarily steal from proprietary ones. The former point is for the courts to decide; the latter is just a sweeping generalization.

Open-source proponents don't advocate "freeing" proprietary software. They advocate developing a free (or lower-cost) alternative to that software, leveraging the creative intellects of thousands of contributors. Let the best software win.

4. Open-source software, available on the Internet, arms our nation's enemies with powerful multiprocessing technology they otherwise couldn't acquire because of U.S. export controls. News alert: The open-source movement isn't U.S.-centric. Its developer devotees span the globe, so the U.S. government has little power to rein them in, regardless of the perceived threat.

With his missive to Congress, McBride appears to be backing SCO away from its Linux licensing strategy (if it still hoped to collect such licensing fees, why would it stomp on Linux?) and instead is re-establishing the company as the caretaker of Unix. Meantime, a federal court was due to rule this week on the merits of SCO's multibillion-dollar lawsuit against IBM, a suit SCO expanded to include alleged copyright infringement. Regardless, SCO should go back to what it knows--developing and licensing its own software--and get out of the FUD business.

Rob Preston is editor in chief of Network Computing. Write to him at rpreston@nwc.com.

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