Clearing a legal cloud around the Linux operating system, computer maker Hewlett-Packard Co. says it will protect its customers from the SCO Group Inc.’s intellectual property claims if the software is running on HP equipment.

HP’s indemnification program stems from recent threats by SCO, which claims that some of its intellectual property has seeped into Linux. SCO has threatened to sue organizations that deploy Linux unless they pay a licensing fee.

The notion has angered advocates of Linux, which was developed over the past decade by a global community of programmers who redistribute their code on the condition that it be redistributed freely. The low cost of deploying Linux has made it an increasingly popular choice among schools and universities looking for an inexpensive means to run their servers.

SCO has based much of its threats on the idea that Linux end users are left liable because the GNU General Public License under which the software is distributed protects distributors but not users of the software.

“We will provide full indemnity across the entire suite for any SCO-related action,” Martin Fink, HP’s vice president of Linux, said Sept. 23. “If [customers] were to get sued by SCO, we would take over their defense and assume liability on their behalf.”

The indemnification program is limited to customers who receive a Linux distribution from HP, run it on HP hardware, and have a support contract with HP. There’s no additional charge for the protection.

Fink said HP is not paying any Linux-related licensing fees to SCO.

“HP is not acknowledging anything related to SCO’s actions,” he said. “The validity of that is for the courts to decide.”

SCO did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

SCO’s campaign began in March with a breach-of-contract lawsuit against IBM Corp., which like HP has been pushing Linux on its computer systems as an affordable alternative to proprietary operating systems.

IBM has called the lawsuit baseless and has since countersued. Leading Linux distributor Red Hat Inc. also has sued SCO, claiming its tactics are without merit and damaging business.

Lindon, Utah-based SCO claims to own certain rights to the Unix operating system, which was developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by AT&T. Linux was first developed in the early 1990s as a variant of Unix for computers running Intel Corp.’s microprocessors.