Can a subpoena stop a movement?

Examining the saga of Linux and SCO, strategists Peter Skarzynski and Pierre Loewe look back to find other examples where movements collided with established institutions.

4 min read
Call it a new front in the war over open source: SCO's decision to seek licensing fees from Linux users has the IT industry--and IT investors--pondering the legality of building for-profit products on Linux.

While the market's initial reaction to the SCO announcement boosted its share price, it's not at all clear that SCO understands what it's up against--or the opening it's giving industry titan IBM to line up as the defender of the little guy.

Start with the fact that Linux isn't as much product as it is a movement. As the emblem of open source and brainchild of Linus Torvalds, Linux stands for the notion that progress is not proprietary. Given that SCO means to ration access to the secrets Linux's father set free, SCO's lawsuit is a little like locking the door on Martin Luther King Jr.'s jail cell and expecting to stop the civil rights movement.

Indeed, when asked to comment on SCO's recent legal allegations, Torvalds said: "I allege that SCO is full of it." Somehow, we doubt Linus cleared that comment with his lawyers (assuming he has any). Aside from the delicious spectacle of Torvalds taking the stand (CNBC meets CourtTV), there are two elements worth noting: SCO's assumption that it can stop a movement with a subpoena--and the fact that in the Linux spat, IBM is on the side of the upstarts.

SCO's CEO, Darl McBride, likens IBM's behavior to "driving without a license." What happens if courts tell IBM to pull over is anyone's guess, but something seems odd about SCO's legal gambit to stuff open-source Linux into a proprietary bottle.

Even more interesting is IBM's position in the open-source wars. How did Big Blue position itself on the ramparts of the open-source revolution? Unlike SCO, more similar to renegades like Red Hat, IBM is seeking ways to build on Linux instead of bottling it up.

How did Big Blue position itself on the ramparts of the open-source revolution?
What?s going on here? Simple: Knowing it can't stop the movement, IBM is trying to co-opt it. It's a great move, thoroughly consistent with the following four steps an established company--or institution--should take to beat a movement:

•  First, seize the moral high ground?The challenge here is to figure out where you're on the side of right, and show it with your ?body language.? Historically, that's what Lincoln did in the decade before the Civil War. Ditto for the post-Sept. 11 presidency of George W. Bush, casting the conflict as an epic contest between ?freedom and fear.? On the corporate side, Johnson & Johnson's immediate response to the Tylenol scare--pulling all of its product off the shelves immediately--positioned the company on the high ground, sending a clear safety-first signal to consumers. In the Linux scenario, Big Blue has found a way to position itself with the open-source renegades--even as it carves out a way to make its stance commercially profitable.

• Compete for the middle ground. This is not as cynical as it might seem. A movement often represents the "extreme" views today and the common ground of tomorrow. Establishment forces who understand that migration can mimic the "move to the middle" in ways that merge its agenda with the movement's. It's like Clinton, marching right, embracing and adopting the Republicans' "Contract with America" call for welfare reform. Or the way in which Honda and Toyota's hybrid cars put them on the right side of the "zero pollution" issue. It's sometimes possible to acquire a reformist agenda: Witness Coke purchasing Odwalla, or Unilever buying Ben & Jerry's.

• Downsize major issues to minor issues--then strike a deal. Movements succeed when they force their opponents to fight a battle on all fronts. Establishment forces survive when they assess which issues are most important, and downsize those issues into something more digestible. That?s what the Bush administration is doing with Ted Kennedy's health care legislation, to defuse a key Democratic issue before 2004; it's the impulse guiding big pharmaceutical companies in their policies on price-cutting AIDS medication in the Third World.

SCO's lawsuit is a little like locking the door on Martin Luther King Jr.'s jail cell and expecting to stop the civil rights movement.
• Finally, when you're up against a movement, find a cause of your own to champion. A movement is designed to overthrow an existing order. By definition, revolution requires change. Even establishment companies must embrace a change agenda: Look at the auto industry, championing soccer moms--a key cohort of SUV buyers--against adverse impact if fuel economy rules are extended to trucks, or high-tech companies fighting the movement to expense stock options as a threat to U.S. competitiveness. Thanks to SCO, IBM can now muster allies behind its own manifesto: ?Open-source workers of the world, unite!?

In every movement, the time comes to choose sides. In the Linux contest, the battle lines are clear: It's SCO's legal scolds papering the IT industry with cease-and-desist e-mails, versus IBM and the Red Hats of the world looking for ways to make Linux even more limber for a variety of commercial applications. As a would-be revolutionary named Marx would have appreciated, SCO will find itself on the wrong side of history.