In a move to ease customer concerns about possible legal action from The SCO Group, software vendor Novell will begin indemnifying customers of SuSE Linux, the Linux distribution vendor that Novell announced plans to acquire in November.

The indemnification programme will go into effect today, the same day that Novell is expected to complete its US$210 million acquisition of the German software company, said Novell spokesman Bruce Lowry.

The programme will be available free of charge to customers who purchase SuSE Linux Enterprise 8, along with Novell's "upgrade protection" software maintenance plan and a support contract, from either Novell or a qualified Novell channel partner, said Lowry.

Customers will be protected for up to 1.25 times the cost of their support contract and licensing fees with Novell, or $1.5 million, "whichever figure is lower," Lowry said.

The indemnification of Linux and open source customers has become a hot topic since SCO launched a $3 billion lawsuit against IBM last March. SCO claims that IBM has illegally contributed SCO's intellectual property to Linux and has threatened to sue Linux users over the matter.

SCO's CEO Darl McBride has said that Novell's acquisition of SuSE will put the Netware vendor in violation of a non-compete agreement between SCO and Novell, and that his company will consider legal action against Novell once the SuSE acquisition is complete.

Novell disputes SCO's non-compete claim. By offering indemnification to its Linux customers it is taking steps to reassure them that they will not be affected by SCO's lawyers.

In September, Hewlett-Packard announced that it would begin indemnifying its own Linux customers to protect them from the possibility of legal action from SCO.

The SuSE indemnification programme will be broader in scope than HP's, said Lowry. "HP is indemnifying for (Linux) on an HP box. We're indemnifying for SuSE Linux," he said. Unlike HP's plan, Novell's indemnification would cover SuSE Linux Enterprise on any type of hardware, and would protect customers from legal action by any company, not just SCO, he said.

The indemnification will not cover other SuSE products such as SuSE Linux 9 or SuSE Linux Desktop, Lowry said. Also, it does not cover the open source Red Carpet Enterprise software produced by Ximian, an open source company Novell acquired last August.

It is unclear whether HP's indemnification programme has actually helped the company's Linux sales, said Bill Claybrook, vice president of Linux strategy with industry research firm Harvard Research Group. But indemnification of any software - proprietary or open source - is good business, Claybrook said.

"Anybody that sells code should indemnify their customers," he said. "If they're selling software products ... then they should stand behind their products. I don't care if they're proprietary or open source."

Linux vendors such as IBM and Red Hat - both of whom are currently engaged in lawsuits with SCO - should also indemnify their customers, Claybrook said.

Red Hat has no plans to indemnify its customers, according to spokeswoman Leigh Day, who said customers continue to buy Red Hat's software without it.

"We've had great relationships with our customers. They feel confident in the solutions we offer them," she said.