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USL v. BSDi was a lawsuit brought in the United States in 1992 by UNIX Systems Laboratories against Berkeley Software Design, Inc and the Regents of the University of California over intellectual property (IP) related to UNIX. The case was settled out of court in 1993 after the judge expressed doubt in the validity of USL's IP, with USL and BSDi agreeing not to litigate further over the software that would later be developed into the free BSDs.

A similar case, SCO v. IBM, is currently pending, where SCO claims to be USL's successor in interest.



The suit has its roots at the Computer Sciences Research Group (CSRG) at the University of California, Berkeley, which had a license for the source code of UNIX from AT&T's Bell Labs. Students doing Operating systems research at the CSRG modified and extended UNIX, and the CSRG made several releases of the modified operating system beginning in 1978, with AT&T's blessing. Because this Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) contained copyrighted AT&T UNIX source code it was only available to organizations with a source code license for UNIX from AT&T.

Students and faculty at the CSRG audited the software code for the TCP/IP stack, removing all the AT&T IP, and released it to the general public in 1988 as NET-1 under the BSD license. When it became apparent that the Berkeley CSRG would soon close, students and faculty at the CSRG began an effort to remove all the remaining AT&T code from the BSD and replace it with their own. This effort resulted in the public release of NET-2 in 1991, again under the BSD license. NET-2 contained code for a near-entire UNIX-like system, which the CSRG believed contained no AT&T IP.

Berkeley Software Design (BSDi) got hold of a copy of NET-2, filled in the missing pieces, and ported it to the Intel i386 computer architecture. BSDi then sold the resulting BSD/386 operating system. This drew the ire of AT&T, which did not agree with BSDi's claim that BSD/386 was free of AT&T IP. AT&T's Unix System Labs subsidiary filed suit against BSDi in New Jersey in April of 1990, a suit that was later amended to include The Regents of the University of California.

USL's complaint

In the lawsuit, UNIX System Labs would allege that:

  • The Regents of the University of California, by releasing NET-2 "based upon, substantially copied from, or derived from proprietary UNIX":
    • Had violated USL's software license with the UC Berkeley .
    • Had violated USL's copyright on UNIX.
    • Had divulged USL's trade secrets by making public "the methods or concepts used therein".
  • BSDi had known UC Berkeley had no right to release the NET-2 source code (and had in fact induced the University into releasing the code), so by distributing code based on it had knowingly violated USL's copyright.
  • UC Berkeley's claim in the announcement of the release of NET-2 that it "requires no previous license [...] from AT&T" was false, and an illegal deceptive trade practice.
  • BSDi's claim in their advertising and software license that BSD/386 and the NET-2 code it was derived from "contained no AT&T licensed code" was false, so BSDi was guilty of false advertising and deceptive trade practices.
  • BSDi's 1-800-ITS-UNIX telephone number violated USL's trademark on UNIX.

On these grounds, USL asked the court for a preliminary injunction that would bar BSDi and UC Berkeley from distributing the NET-2 software until the outcome of the case was known.

Many of the trial documents of this case are sealed or unavailable, including the majority of those submitted by USL. Some of those that are available have had portions removed as a term of the case settlement. However, in November of 2004, a copy of the USL v. BSDi settlement agreement became available to the public: see Terms of the settlement.


Since the allegedly infringing software had been released to the public by the UC Berkeley, most of the case would hinge on events there. Because UC Berkeley was not originally a party to the suit, the University made its arguments against an injuction in a series of amicus briefs.

The University submitted the licenses UC Berkeley had from AT&T for UNIX, which specifically stated that the copyright on the Berkeley software built upon the 32V version of UNIX belonged to the University. They went on to claim that AT&T had confirmed this by allowing the free redistribution of NET-1, as well as allowing the distribution of the later BSDs, in which specific source code files were marked as containing no AT&T code and freely redistributable. Under US law, allowing this distribution was considered abandoning the copyright, so that code could be considered a copyrighted part of UNIX.

Assuming this was true, the University still needed to show that NET-2 did not contain any validly copyrighted AT&T UNIX code. One claim the University made was that USL's copyright in the 32V version of UNIX that NET/2 was based on was invalid. At the time 32V was released, US copyright law did not automatically presume that a released work was copyrighted. In order to claim copyright, it was necessary to include copyright notices in the work -- which the 32V source code did not have -- or to register the work with the government. AT&T didn't register the copyright on 32V UNIX until 1992, and so the grace period for registering an already-released work had expired.

The University also claimed that similar lines of source code (which were presented during discovery) did not infringe on USL's copyright because they had become public domain by the actions of AT&T: AT&T had promoted UNIX as a standard, licensing it to universities and allowing UNIX source code to be published in textbooks. The University submitted briefs from the UC Berkeley students and staff, explaining how they had audited the code, looking for freely available copies of the source code and methods. When they could find none, they said, they removed the code and rewrote it using publicly known techniques -- and so any remaining similarities existed because AT&T had effectively abandoned the copyright to them.

The University also argued that the source code did not infringe because it was necessary for program compatibility -- that certain code could be written only one way and still be compatible with the standards set by organizations like POSIX (which AT&T supported), and so was no longer a "creative" work that could receive copyright protection under US law.

Even if the code were validly copyrighted AT&T UNIX code, the University claimed, that would not be a copyright violation because it made up such a small fraction of the whole of NET-2 that it was not legally a derived work.

Terms of the settlement

Until recently, the details of the settlement have been kept secret between the parties, with the general public consensus being that USL and BSDi had mutually agreed not to litigate further over the software that would later be developed into the free BSDs -- an agreement reached after the judge denied the injunction against BSDi, and after the UNIX IP had been purchased from AT&T by Novell. In November 2004, a copy of the USL v. BSDi settlement agreement was posted to the Groklaw website, obtained from The Regents of the University of California's Office of the General Counsel under the State of California Public Records Law. This crucial link in UNIX legal history is now public: see External links.

to do: summarize the settlement terms

See also

External links


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