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Top 10 Open-Source Software Stories Of 2007

Yes, there were lawsuits. But there were also important advances in GPL, Apache, Web services, and Java, which made commercial software suppliers more worried than ever.

2. SCO Rebuffed In Claims Its Intellectual Property Was Given To Linux.

Four years ago, the SCO Group filed suit against Novell and IBM for allowing Unix code to infiltrate the Linux kernel, a violation of SCO's intellectual property, since SCO claimed to own the Unix copyright. SCO showed an unusual doggedness in making its case by suing Linux users Autozone (which was later dropped) and Daimler Chrysler. Linux vendor Red Hat countersued, seeking a declaratory judgment that it wasn't in violation of SCO's copyright. But U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball ruled Aug. 10 that SCO had purchased the rights to Unix code without buying the copyright. SCO's case appeared to collapse.

SCO still has some points that it wants to argue, says SCO president and CEO Darl McBride, but the shudder that went through the Linux community as the suits were filed -- if users were being sued, who knew how this case might end -- turned to relief, then disbelief, as McBride talked about continuing the fight.

A subsequent legal challenge to Linux from a new source has emerged, but the SCO case had a plaintiff with claims to Unix ownership that went back to AT&T's origin of the operating system. If code that matched Unix could be produced out of Linux, then a perhaps a legitimate claim to ownership would follow. And that had the potential to be the monkey wrench in the gears of Linux operations at thousands of end user sites. Now that concern has faded. On Sept. 14, SCO got out of Dodge (actually, the District Court was in Salt Lake City) and filed for bankruptcy protection with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware.

1. Microsoft Claims Linux Infringes Its Patents.

The number one open source story in 2007 clearly was Microsoft's claims that 235 of its patents are infringed by the Linux kernel and user interface. In a May 13 Fortune article, Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith made it plain that his firm felt it has the user interface and operating system patents to tie up Linux in court. Whether it would ever take such a risky step Smith was less clear about, although in the ensuing outcry, Microsoft executives let it be known they had no intention of suing customers.

Linux has become so central to the strategies of IBM, HP, Oracle, Novell, and Google that any attack on Linux is likely to find them sliding into the defender's camp, with their own weighty patent portfolios. Microsoft beware. Are you sure you invented the graphical user interface?

The long-term outlook is that the U. S. Patent Office is receiving guidance from both Congress and the Supreme Court that its manner of granting software patents has been too lax. A half-year after specifying its claims, Microsoft has filed no patent enforcement actions and only occasionally rattles the patent saber. If it makes too much noise, it might cause alarm among its customers, many of whom are Linux and open source code users. At the same time, it's clear it doesn't want everyone to forget about its potential power.

Any doubt it can generate that slows the adoption of Linux is as good as money in the bank. If that doesn't work in the long run, then bow to the inevitable and come to terms with a world of mixed environments. With the Microsoft/Novell agreement, we're actually well into that third stage. Just don't expect Microsoft to admit it.

[Update, Jan. 2, 3pm: A reference to Acacia, which incorrectly had Nathan Myhrvold associated with the company, was corrected.]

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