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Friday, 11 March 2011 10:04

GPL expert gives Red Hat the all-clear

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Well-known free software activist and GPL expert Bradley Kuhn says Red Hat's recent change of policy with regard to provision of its kernel source appears, on the surface, to be GPL-compliant.


"The kernel change appears to be primarily a packaging decision that makes things less convenient (likely for companies such as Oracle), but Red Hat's change with kernel packaging appears on its surface to be GPL compliant," Kuhn told iTWire in response to a query.

He said that a recent blog post that he had made was in no way a comment on the change in Red Hat's policy as some have concluded. "My blog (post) wasn't a comment on that topic; it wasn't even in my mind at all when writing it. The RHEL business model plan I was talking about has been standing policy from long ago (going back to at least 2003).

Kuhn said the kernel thing could be part of Red Hat's desire to make sure its business model works as it is "supposed to". "But I am not aware of any change in official Red Hat policy on these issues since the institution of the current RHEL business model," he said.

Asked about the additional restrictions that Red Hat is now placing on its customers — anyone who redistributes its GPL-ed code will lose support from the company — Kuhn said: "To my knowledge, Red Hat is in compliance with GPLv2 and GPLv3 on all their distributions and business models. I have no evidence to the contrary; I'm sorry if you got that impression from my blog post; I did try to remain clear that it was GPL-compliant and I was commenting on whether it was good for the community or not (which is often an orthogonal issue to pure compliance)."

The GPLv2, under which the Linux kernel is licensed, says "You may not impose any further restrictions on the recipients' exercise of the rights granted herein." Red Hat's telling customers that they will lose their support if they do redistribute the source could well be interpreted as imposing additional restrictions and thus violating the licence.

But Kuhn doesn't see it this way. "The question comes down to whether or not telling someone 'your money's no good here, I don't want to provide services to you anymore' is a 'further restriction'. I'm not persuaded that it's a 'further restriction'. I agree it's an unfortunate consequence, but if we interpreted the GPL to say that you were required to keep someone as a customer no matter what they did, that would be an unreasonable interpretation.

"As I've said recently on identi.ca to Richard Fontana of Red Hat (and he agreed): the business model that RHEL uses could have been structured in a way that was not compliant with the GPL if they failed to be careful about it. However, the Red Hat lawyers who designed the business model were extremely careful to make sure it was GPL-compliant. I'd agree it's close to the line but it's clearly on the compliant side of it.



Kuhn said the question of whether the business model was nice and/or reasonable was an entirely different matter. "I've been told by sources inside Red Hat that they rarely go to the auditing option in the contract and 'fire their client'. Typically, my Red Hat sources say they have a reasonable conversation with the client to work it out.

"For example, I'm told Red Hat sometimes gets a support request under a RHEL contract for a CentOS machine. Obviously, they don't support CentOS, so they tell the client 'if you want to get support, you have to buy a RHEL support contract for the machine in question'. That seems reasonable and GPL-compliant to me. Nothing in the GPL mandates that Red Hat give service and support for a CentOS machine!"

He said it appeared to him that the bigger issue for Red Hat now was companies like Oracle redistributing CentOS-derivatives wholesale, offering support and taking customers away.

"Oracle is well known for unfriendly and aggressive business practices, so I'm not surprised that Red Hat is getting aggressive themselves in response with making it more difficult to figure out the kernel patchsets," he said.

"But, again, that's a different issue than the one I was commenting on, and while I haven't studied the kernel distribution by Red Hat in detail, I highly doubt that Red Hat has failed to comply with the letter of the GPL. I'd be quite surprised if Red Hat violated the GPL; I've never heard a report in my life of Red Hat violating the GPL."

Kuhn conceded that what Red Hat was doing with the kernel sources was not particularly collaborative and also unfriendly.

"But, I also believe they are doing it primarily to fight with Oracle, and given the kind of company Oracle is, I can see it from Red Hat's point of view. This is why *I* don't run a for-profit business - I'm too nice of a guy and I wouldn't make the kind of decisions that fail to maximize (sic) collaborative software development because a competitor is causing me trouble."


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Sam Varghese

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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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