SCO targets federal supercomputer users

The company sends letters threatening two Energy Department facilities with legal action for using Linux.

The SCO Group, the company that's hoping to profit from its assertion that Linux violates its Unix intellectual property, has threatened legal action against two federal supercomputer users, letters released Thursday show.

SCO sent letters raising the prospect of legal action for using Linux to two Department of Energy facilities, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC).


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The letter to NERSC director Horst Simon used strong language in its effort to convince the research facility to buy a license that will let it use Linux without fear of SCO legal action.

"I am requesting a meeting so that we may discuss the alternatives available to your firm. WE BELIEVE WE CAN PROPOSE SOLUTIONS THAT WILL BE AGREEABLE AND ECONOMICALLY FEASIBLE FOR YOU," Gregory Pettit, SCO's regional director of intellectual-property licensing, wrote in the Jan. 16 letter, which he said was a follow-up to a Dec. 19 notification.

"If you fail to respond to our efforts to pursue a licensing arrangement, WE WILL TURN YOUR NAME OVER TO OUR OUTSIDE COUNSEL FOR CONSIDERATION OF LEGAL ACTION," Pettit said.

It's not an idle threat, though many Linux fans dismiss the Lindon, Utah-based company's assertions. SCO's attorneys, Boies Schiller & Flexner, have indeed sued AutoZone for its use of Linux, claiming that the open-source operating system infringes on SCO's Unix copyrights. That point is disputed, though: Novell, an earlier Unix owner, argues that it still owns the copyrights, the subject of another lawsuit.

The letter to the Livermore lab was one of many that SCO sent in December. The letter argues that dozens of files in Linux use application binary interfaces, taken from Unix, in violation of U.S. copyright law.

Mark Koehn, an intellectual-property attorney at Shaw-Pittman, received the letters from the government in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Koehn's firm represents some companies that have received letters from SCO, he said.

NERSC spokesman Jon Bashor said of the letter, "This matter has been referred to legal staff, and we are unable to comment on it at this time." Livermore didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Linux is widely used for supercomputers made of clusters of lower-end machines, and the Energy Department is an avid consumer of such machines to support work such as ensuring nuclear weapons' reliability and forecasting global climate changes.

Both Energy Department facilities are extensive Linux users.

Livermore already announced a 962-machine Linux computer, and its 1,152-computer Multiprogrammatic Capability Cluster ranks seventh on the November 2003 ranking of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers.

Livermore also will be the site that houses IBM's Linux-based Blue Gene/L, a machine that's expected to be the world's fastest.

NERSC has a 412-computer Linux cluster called the Parallel Distributed Systems Facility. NERSC has cooperated for years on supercomputers with IBM--SCO's first target--including both Unix and Linux machines. A Unix system at NERSC is currently ranked the ninth-fastest supercomputer.

SCO's legal threats reinforce a message Chief Executive Darl McBride sent to another part of the federal government in January: members of Congress.

"Free or low-cost open-source software, full of proprietary code, is grabbing an increasing portion of the software market. Each open-source installation displaces or pre-empts a sale of proprietary, licensable and copyright-protected software," McBride said in a letter, republished by the Open Source and Industry Alliance. "This means fewer jobs, less software revenue and reduced incentives for software companies to innovate."

"We are firm in our belief that the unchecked spread of open-source software, under the GPL (the General Public License covers Linux and many other open-source programs), is a much more serious threat to our capitalist system than U.S. corporations realize," McBride said.

At the same time that SCO is attacking the U.S. government for its use of Linux supercomputers, it argues that those same types of machines can be used by military enemies.

"Open-source software--available widely through the Internet--has the potential to provide our nation's enemies or potential enemies with computing capabilities that are restricted by U.S. law," McBride said. "A computer expert in North Korea who has a number of personal computers can download the latest version of Linux...and in short order build a virtual supercomputer."

SCO sent the letter to every member of the Senate and House of Representatives, said Blake Stowell, a SCO spokesman.

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