Sun may offer Java customers SCO relief

Sun Microsystems may add a provision to some of its Java licenses to protect consumers from Linux-related lawsuits filed by the SCO Group.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Can fear of SCO help Java grow? Sun Microsystems thinks it just might.

Sun is contemplating adding an unusual provision to some of its Java licenses under which the company would agree to protect licensees from Linux-related lawsuits filed by the SCO Group.

SCO earlier this year asserted that some of the code in Linux infringes on the intellectual property underlying Unix, the 20-plus-year-old operating system that has been owned at different times by AT&T, Novell and now SCO.

"You license Java--we will indemnify you on Linux," is how Jonathan Schwartz, executive vice president of software at Sun, said the program, if initiated, might work. "We would indemnify you against the possibility that SCO comes after you."

A Sun representative said the program, if executed, would likely apply only to Java 2 Micro Edition, Sun's version of Java for gadgets including cell phones and embedded devices such as electronic billboards. SCO is seeking licenses for use of Linux on such devices, though it isn't seeking fees as high as those for desktop or server use. Sun also has versions of Java for desktop computers and servers.

Sun's contemplated actions are the latest salvo in an escalating legal war over Linux and the latest example of a company looking to take advantage of a tense and confusing situation.

So far, SCO has sued IBM for allegedly misappropriating Unix code and said it will seek payment from corporate Linux users. SCO's legal position has drawn the ire of open-source advocates, some of whom have hacked SCO's site.

Meanwhile, other companies have sought to benefit from the situation. Microsoft signed a multimillion-dollar licensing agreement with SCO that revolves around Unix-Linux compatibility issues, a move that some analysts have said will help SCO fund its suit. Microsoft executives also have warned the public about the legal dangers of open-source software in the hopes of convincing buyers to choose its Windows operating system and applications.

Additionally, the software giant expanded the indemnity provisions in its volume license agreements as a way to put customers at ease against the fear of lawsuits.

Although Sun and Microsoft are often at odds, they have taken similar approaches toward protecting customers from lawsuits. Sun has publicly stated on several occasions that it will indemnify its Solaris customers against any liability. Customers that adopt Mad Hatter, an upcoming Sun desktop software suite, also will be indemnified, Schwartz said.

Over the years, Sun has paid millions of dollars to the owners of the original Unix code so that it can use the code in a variety of products without fear of liability.

Linux users: You're on your own
When it comes to Linux, however, Sun server customers are on their own. The company does not provide indemnity to Sun server customers who choose to run Linux, rather than Solaris, on its servers. Sun sells servers that run Red Hat's Linux.

Sun, in fact, will try to erode Linux's growth in the marketplace by promoting a version of Solaris that runs on servers with chips from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices.

"The big appeal of Linux is that it runs on Intel," Schwartz said.

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What does Java have to do with Linux? The two technologies are often used in the same computers and applications. Legally, however, a Linux indemnity clause would essentially be an extra, unexpected benefit. Incorporating Java into Linux computers would not ordinarily insulate a company from any liability.

"I think it is a large piece of the value proposition," Schwartz said.

Schwartz did not comment on how Sun could insulate its Java customers from a lawsuit from SCO, but there are a number of possibilities. Sun could request that Java customers seeking indemnity switch from using Linux to Solaris. Sun could also, conceivably, devise a Linux-like OS, or it could pay additional royalties to SCO.

Sun has a broad license from SCO to incorporate the company's Unix technology into its Solaris operating system and related applications. However, Sun's license only extends to Solaris, said SCO spokesman Blake Stowell, not to Java related products or any as-yet-created version of Linux from Sun.

"It really covers the Unix business," Stowell said, adding that Sun has "the broadest rights in the industry."

Stowell declined to comment on Sun's proposed licensing plans.