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October 4, 1999

The Solaris Trap

Sun has announced that the source code to Solaris - its proprietary version of Unix - will be released under the "Sun Community Source License." Much speculation has already happened regarding the effects that this release will have on Linux, but much of that overlooks a serious threat posed by this release. By creating the temptation to incorporate non-free code into parts of Linux, this release could open up the Linux community to a long and crippling series of intellectual property fights and lawsuits.

On the face of it, the release of Solaris seems like a good thing. Solaris has its faults - nobody is likely to try to emulate its approach to modems and serial ports, for example - but it also has a lot of good features. Won't it be great to have all that code out there in the open?

And, in fact, users of Solaris will certainly benefit from this release. They will be able to fix problems and make enhancements so that the system they are already working with will work better. This move may prove to be a good one on Sun's part in that it may help to keep current users from defecting to Linux.

The problem, however, lies in the Sun Community Source License. The SCSL is not a free software license. It provides for three tiers of users, and imposes restrictions on all of them. Redistribution, in particular, is difficult, and commercial use requires that licensing fees be paid to Sun. To mix SCSL and GPL code, in particular, appears to be a violation of both licenses.

And herein lies the danger: the release of Solaris, whenever it actually happens, will make available a large body of code. Much of that code will be potentially useful within the Linux kernel or elsewhere within a larger Linux system. Some of this code will provide invaluable information on how Sun's hardware works.

It seems only a matter of time until some SCSL code leaks into Linux somewhere. Even highly alert maintainers who are determined to keep out incompatibly-licensed code can not be expected to recognize anything that may have had its origins on Solaris somewhere. This sort of leak can happen anywhere in the system and, while the insertion of SCSL code could be done maliciously, it could just as easily happen via laziness or a simple mistake.

That is when the trouble starts. What happens when Sun starts seeking damages against distributors and vendors? When many thousands of CD's are already in circulation, a simple "cease and desist" may not be sufficient - they could go for serious monetary penalties. At a minimum, we are looking at disruptions in Linux distributions and ugly headlines; worse cases could involve some Linux companies going out of business.

It is highly unlikely that Sun is releasing Solaris with this sort of attack in mind. But that does not mean that Sun will not vigorously defend its intellectual property once it sees a violation of the license somewhere. Until such a time as Sun wakes up and puts Solaris under a free software license, freely-available Solaris code is a trap which must be approached most carefully.


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