HP Offers Legal Protection To Linux Customers

Businesses who buy the open-source operating system from HP won't have to worry about a lawsuit from the SCO Group.
Hewlett-Packard said Wednesday that it would protect its Linux customers from any legal action that the SCO Group might take against them. For the past several months, the SCO Group has charged that the Linux kernel violates its rights because the open-source operating system includes elements of SCO's Unix System V source code. SCO claims the right to seek compensation from Linux users for alleged violations of its copyrights.

HP is the first Linux vendor to offer to shield its customers from any SCO Group lawsuits. HP customers qualify for this protection as long as they buy Red Hat Inc. or SuSE Linux AG versions of Linux directly from HP with a standard support contract and they do not make modifications to the Linux source code. Customers also have to agree to make all future Linux purchases through HP, which claims to have earned $2 billion in Linux-related revenue last year.

HP isn't offering complete protection to Linux users, just for claims made by the SCO Group. HP is protecting customers from legal action from the SCO Group alone because "that's where the legal cloud is," Martin Fink, VP of Linux, said in a Wednesday teleconference. As for any other legal claims that might arise, "we don't want to speculate on what's out there," he said.

HP's Linux customers have another option: Buy an SCO Intellectual Property License for Linux, which the company says permits the use of Linux without violating SCO Group's copyrighted Unix System V source code. Each run-time-only license will, until Oct. 15, cost a one-time fee of $699 for a single CPU system. After Oct. 15, the price will jump to $1,399.

The SCO Group on Wednesday issued an E-mailed statement commending HP's actions. "It doesn't bother us that SCO was singled out" by HP, says a SCO Group spokesman, "although it might bother some of HP's customers because they aren't being fully protected."

HP's actions should provide peace of mind for its Linux customers, according to one analyst. "If a company sells you software, they should stand behind it, even if it's not their software," says Bill Claybrook, Aberdeen Group's Linux and open-source research director. "They're making money from the transaction." Generally speaking, a company that makes its own, proprietary software will stand behind it, meaning it will fix any problems and vouch for the product's legality, Claybrook says.

While Wednesday's announcement is good for HP's Linux customers, it puts IBM on the defensive, Claybrook says. It's easy to see this as a marketing ploy by HP to put IBM in an unfavorable light because IBM doesn't offer its Linux customers similar protection, he says. But HP is legitimately committing to protect its Linux customers from SCO. "It seems pretty clear that if you run Linux on HP and don't change the source code, HP will protect you," he says.

That doesn't mean HP is taking on a great deal of risk by promising to protect its customers, none of whom SCO has sued. HP "probably feels the risk of their customers being sued by SCO isn't high," Claybrook says.

An IBM spokeswoman Wednesday made a similar observation after HP's press conference. "HP, Dell, Red Hat, government agencies, and other group have stood by Linux," says Trink Guarino. "This is because the industry believes SCO's claims against Linux and IBM are baseless. And we agree."

Leading Linux distributor Red Hat says it supports any move that protects its customers. But Red Hat also is hoping for a speedy resolution to SCO Group's action against the Linux market. "The issue between SCO and IBM is a contract dispute between the two companies," Red Hat president and CEO Matthew Szulik said Tuesday at a dinner for press and analysts. "If there's an infringement [in the Linux kernel], let's get it resolved."

Red Hat has filed a lawsuit against SCO Group in Delaware's U.S. District Court seeking a "declaratory judgment that Red Hat Linux does not infringe any copyright owned by SCO, and does not utilize any trade secret owned by SCO." Red Hat is also seeking damages as well as injunctive relief, attorneys' fees, and costs for harm caused by "SCO's unfair competition and false advertising." SCO Group has filed a motion to have Red Hat's suit dismissed.

Linux vendor SuSE Linux also applauds HP's actions. "HP is saying to SCO that if you're coming after our customers, you're going to have to come through us," says SuSE spokesman Joe Eckert. Both Red Hat and SuSE say that SCO Group's lawsuit against IBM and its attempts to charge Linux users a fee for SCO intellectual property allegedly contributed to Unix without permission have created some apprehension in the market. "We're seeing sales cycles lengthening a bit, although it's not causing customers to dismiss [Linux] out of hand," Eckert says.

Neither SuSE nor Red Hat offer their users protection from the type of allegations SCO Group has made against the Linux market. Red Hat's position is that open source programmers and the Linux community have too much integrity to allow stolen code to be contributed to the Linux kernel, Szulik says. Each programmer's "reputation is at stake when they contribute code." SuSE's Eckert says that his company "never felt it was appropriate to indemnify its customers because SCO never provided proof of its claims."

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