In a truly over-the-top letter, Darl McBride, the CEO of SCO Computing, which holds an ancient copyright on the "Unix" brand name bought from ATT, where this computer operating system was first developed in the 1970s and early 80s, has declared all-out war on free software, declaring the Linux operating system "a threat to our nation's capitalist system...and national security." McBride objects to what he claims is the inclusion of "proprietary code" for this original operating system in the current Linux system.
His outrageous claims have been vigorously disputed by the free and open source software communities. But the conflict brings into sharp focus the increasing audacity of the US political ultraright, and its attempts to expand its political, economic, and ideological power over broader and broader swathes of public discourse nationally and internationally. In the Supreme Court case, Eldred vs. Ashcroft, cited by McBride in his letter to Congress, the Court rejected claims by plaintiffs that the plain wording of the Constitution's grant to Congress, in Article I, Section 8, required the Court's consideration of the public interest served by patents and copyrights. The Constitution states there that Congress shall have the power to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries." The Court ruled that no independent consideration of this public purpose need be given by the Court, and that it suffices to interpret any act of Congress that enriches copyright holders to suffice in fulfilliing this public purpose. The Court's majority went further still, sanctifying private profit as being equivalent to the public interest. Compare and contrast the dissenting opinion (by Justices Stevens and Breyer), to the majority opinion:
The clause does not exist "to provide a special private benefit,"... but to "stimulate artistic creativity for the general public good.... The "reward" is a means, not an end.
Whereas the majority rebutted the dissenters thus:
Justice Stevens' characterization of reward to the author as "a secondary consideration" of copyright law... understates the relationship between such rerwards and the "Progress of Science." As we have explained, "[t]he economic philosophy behind the [Copyright [C]lause ...is the conviction that encouragement of individual effort by personal gain is the best way to advance public welfare through the talents of authors and inventors."...Accordingly, "copyright law celebrates (emphasis in original) the profit motive, recognizing that the incentive to profit from the exploitation of copyrights will redound to the public benefit by resulting in the proliferation of knowledge.... The profit motive is the engine that ensures the progress of science."
All this from one clause, which never even mentions private profits at all, but only the serving of a public purpose, "the advancement of the useful arts and sciences"! One is tempted to remind the Court majority of another famous dissent made by Justice Holmes to one of the more outrageous 19th century Gilded Age rulings of the Court, when it struck down state laws on hours and working conditions as unconstitutional violations of "freedom of contract": "[The Constitution] does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer's Social Statics" (Spencer was an ultraliberal--what we would now call a "neoliberal"--19th century proponent of unrestricted laissez faire capitalism and Social Darwinism.)
Of course, it is hardly necessary to remind readers here that this is the same Court majority (plus 2) that issued the infamous ruling of December 12, 2000, effectively appointing an unelected minority candidate President of the United States.
The SCO chairman's letter comes on the heels of an ongoing lawsuit seeking to force IBM (and, by extension, all other Linux users) to pay SCO royalties for supposed SCO-propietary source code contained in Linux (they are only asking for the modest sum of $800(!) dollars per user license.) Few observers give SCO good odds of prevailing in their ambitious aims. However, it is clear they have their fingers to the political winds, and are aiming to capitalize for all its worth on the current repressive, ultra-rightwing miasma wafting over the US political economy. Activists have called for a boycott against them, in addition to other creative actions. Whatever the outcome of this battle, it bears close watching, as it will undoubtedly be a bellwether of further struggles to come at the nexus of civil liberties, information technology, corporate dominance, and rightwing ideological warfare.