Red Hat CEO Matthew Szulik is not known for avoiding conflicts that threaten his company. So how much longer will it be before he unleashes his legal team to defend against Microsoft's patent accusations in the same way he railed against SCO Group's copyright claims?I have this bright red pin hanging in my cubicle with the phrase "Prove It!" boldly plastered across the middle. It's a trinket I saved from a time in 2003 when the bubble was settling, but Red Hat was gathering traction in the data center and sales were on the increase. Then something out of left field happened to Red Hat and other Linux companies.
That summer, SCO Group began talking loudly in the press that Linux-based companies should be forewarned: They were at risk of Unix copyright infringement -- similar to the claims SCO made against IBM.
After a few months of airing out each other's dirty laundry and brandishing legal threats, Szulik had enough and laid down the gauntlet. The result was a seven-count complaint filed in Delaware asking SCO to back off its accusations. Red Hat lawyers asked the courts for a permanent injunction holding SCO accountable for what Szulik called "unsubstantiated innuendo and rumor." The straw that broke, Szulik said, was a SCO conference call to investors suggesting that Red Hat created an "atmosphere of fear, doubt, and uncertainty about Linux." Almost immediately, Szulik took up the mantle for Red Hat, SuSE (before Novell), and the other distributions.
"For the past two months, we have listened to these unfounded claims," Szulik said back in August 2003. "We've been patient. We've listened. But when our customers and the whole open source community are threatened with innuendo and rumor, it's time to act. Our goal is to find out the truth. Our suggestion to SCO is to 'prove it.' "
Out went the red buttons. Red Hat's general counsel at the time, Mark Webbink, filed the paperwork. The courts heard both sides. The campaign cost Red Hat time and money, but SCO's claims have been largely overturned in federal district court.
Sound vaguely familiar? Microsoft has done its share of saber rattling around Linux recently. CEO Steve Ballmer has repeatedly claimed that Microsoft IP is found in Linux. "People [who] use Red Hat, at least with respect to our intellectual property, in a sense have an obligation to eventually compensate us," Ballmer said at a Microsoft event last week in London.
This time, however, Szulik and Red Hat are playing it cooler. InformationWeek reporter extraordinaire Charles Babcock's assessment this week is that Red Hat is taking the business high road against Microsoft's slings and arrows.
When asked about fight or flight from Microsoft's threats, Red Hat declines to comment except to refer to previous statements. A blog by Red Hat's "IP Team" notes that Red Hat indemnifies customers against patent claims and says there's been "no patent lawsuit against Linux. Ever. Anywhere."
Charlie made sure I knew that the average reader, seeing "no patent lawsuit against Linux. Ever," might ask, what about the SCO lawsuit?
"The point is, the SCO lawsuits were about copyright infringement, not about patent infringement," Charlie said. "They are often confused, and I am not convinced that readers know there's no connection between the past SCO lawsuit and the claimed Microsoft infringement."
True. True. And unlike last time, Red Hat may also be keeping the legal card in reserve because Microsoft is openly partnering with Novell (which now controls SUSE Linux).
Logic dictates that either Red Hat or Microsoft is going to blink eventually. When that happens, Szulik may have to open up Red Hat's checkbook or break out those reserve boxes filled with red buttons marked, "Prove It!"
Feel free to post your thoughts on the matter below.