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Friday, 04 March 2011 11:58

Is Red Hat violating the GPL?


Right from the time it was set up in the early 1990s, Red Hat has always been some kind of a beacon to the GNU/Linux community.

There have been peaks and troughs, times when the community has been furious with Red Hat and others when the people have drowned the company in praise. There have been times when Red Hat has taken a wrong fork in the road, times when it has chosen the right strategy.

But never in this entire period has Red Hat ever been accused of forgetting its roots - that has been the company's strong point. It has always supported the upstream projects from which it uses software, contributed to every possible FOSS-related cause, and has still managed to keep the market happy when it comes to reporting time.

Nobody has ever been able to talk of licence violation - either in letter or spirit - and Red Hat in the same breath.

And Red Hat has never shied away from engaging with the media, be it mainstream or niche. The arrogance that comes to mark many successful companies - which try to obfuscate when queried until they come crashing down, hoist by their own petard - has never been part of its approach.

But now things seem to be changing. A few months back, Red Hat settled a patent suit with a patent troll, Acacia, over alleged patent infringement in JBoss, software that Red Hat owns.

Queries as to the details of the patent in question were evaded. JBoss developers need to know - simply because it is released under the LGPL a licence that prohibits one party from licensing a patent unless the same rights apply to all developers of the software.

How can these developers have any peace of mind as they continue to code? How will they know if they will one day find a patent troll on their heels, claiming that they have violated that same patent?

More recently, Red Hat released the source to the 2.6.32 kernel as a single tarball. This was noticed by a member of the Debian kernel team, Maximilian Attems, who put it this way:

"The only real big bastard on the cool 2.6.32 'sync' is Red Hat. Red Hat Enterprise 6.0 is shipping the linux-2.6 2.6.32 in obfuscated form. They released their linux-2.6 as one big tarball clashing with the spirit of the GPL.

"One can only mildly guess from the changelog which patches get applied. This is in sharp contrast to any previous Red Hat release and has not yet generated the sharp and snide comments in press it deserves. Red Hat should really step back and not make such stupid management moves. Next to them even the semi-maintained Oracle 'Unbreakable' 2.6.32 branch looks better: It is git fetchable."

The Linux Weekly News pointed to this aspect of the Attems interview and it did draw a huge number of comments from its technical audience.

As LWN editor Jonathan Corbet put it: "One of the key points behind the RPM and Debian package formats is that source is shipped in its upstream form, with patches shipped separately and applied at build time. Red Hat has always followed this convention; the failure to do so with the RHEL 6 kernel is a new and discouraging change of behavior.

"Distribution in this form should satisfy the GPL, but it makes life hard for anybody else wanting to see what has been done with this kernel. Hopefully it is simply a mistake which will be corrected soon."

There has been speculation that one reason for the change is to make things difficult for Oracle to find out what patches Red Hat has applied to the kernel which it ships with its enterprise distribution.

One more thing that has happened recently is that Red Hat is now attaching additional conditions to the redistribution of its offerings.

As with all things in FOSS, I reasoned that the best solution was to go to the source.

A couple of days back, I sent a query to Red Hat. Pretty simple stuff: "Red Hat has always followed the convention - as other distributions do -of shipping the upstream kernel source and patches separately. From 2.6.32 that has changed and the whole thing is being supplied as one huge tarball. Why has this change been made?

"Secondly, the fact that Red Hat is now placing restrictions on redistribution of GPL-ed sources appears to violate the licence under which the kernel is distributed. The GPL says 'You may not impose any further restrictions on the exercise of the rights granted or affirmed under this License.' By telling customers that they will lose their support if they do redistribute the source, Red Hat is imposing additional restrictions and thus violating the GPL. Your comment on this would be appreciated."

We'll have to wait until next week to find out. The response I got was: "Red Hat will be issuing a response early next week - probably Tuesday or Wednesday - in the form of a blog."

GPL violations are not only judged by the letter of the licence - they are also judged by the spirit of the GPL. When Novell signed its infamous patent-licensing deal with Microsoft back in 2006, it did nothing wrong by the letter of the GPL. But it was certainly judged to have violated the spirit of that licence.

Attems' interview was published on February 17. LWN raised the issue on February 28. By the time Red Hat responds, it will be nearly three weeks since the deed was known. Complicated kernel bugs have been fixed in less than half that time.

Indeed, the company that champions open source appears to have adopted the worst habits of the proprietary mob.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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