The public’s perception of a thing often shapes the future of that thing. This is why smear campaigns work, even if founded on false accusations. SCO, a software company, has launched a smear campaign at an entire community – the free software community.SCO has made unfounded claims about theft of code by the community, and has been demanding compensation for this code theft from the users of the software in the form of license fees.This highly publicized and long running campaign has, perhaps intentionally, damaged the name and perception of free software. A lot of people have probably become aware of free software only in the context of this legal battle. Unfortunately, even if the open source community clears its name legally, they will still lose much in the court of public opinion.For the free software movement, public opinion is tremendously important. Since free software is the alternative to the standard model, its makers already have the burden of convincing consumers or users of its importance, efficiency and utility.This is especially true when there exists within the dominant model one brand so ubiquitous as to be synonymous for many users with the industry itself. As a result of these specious claims and lawsuits, free software supporters have to overcome an even worse barrier than obscurity – notoriety. Now instead of being merely unknown to potential users, free software is seen as potentially negative.After all, who wants to build their computing infrastructure on something with a nebulous legal position?Whether or not this was the intent when SCO entered into this protracted, public and unwarranted legal battle/smear campaign, the potential harm to an innocent community of paid and volunteer developers of software – and the software they create – is unquestionably wrong.Unfortunately, it is very hard to undo the damage. The more the allegations are repeated, the more those allegations are assumed to be true. And, every time SCO makes another claim, that claim is reported in technology related media. Today, SCO announced lawsuits against two companies, Daimler-Chrysler and AutoZone, two Fortune 500 companies, which will bring this conflict even further in to the mainstream media.Many of you will soon be hearing about the free software community and the accusation that they are thieves. We all need to remember that the burden of proof rests on the shoulders of the slanderers and not on the defendants.Powell can be reached at

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