[Update: I copied the wrong definition of “proprietary” from M-W (the noun), so I’ve updated the post to include the adjective defintion.]
Ever since Jonathan Schwartz commented in an interview last month that Red Hat Enterprise Linux was proprietary, a firestorm of criticism has been directed at the comment, with the conventional wisdom swiftly concluding that Schwartz is just plain wrong and, additionally, that his comments are further evidence that Sun just plain doesn’t get it.
I’m going to take the unpopular view, as I sometimes do, and say that it’s the conventional wisdom that’s just plain wrong, and that Schwartz is right.
Ok, I can hear the questions now. “But RHEL is open source? How can it be proprietary?”
Let’s take a step back and look at what the word “proprietary” means. Hint: It does not mean “closed source”.
- of, relating to, or characteristic of a proprietor <proprietary rights>
- used, made, or marketed by one having the exclusive legal right <a proprietary process>
- privately owned and managed and run as a profit-making organization <a proprietary clinic>
The key phrase here is “used, made, or marketed by one having the exclusive legal right”. Red Hat clearly possesses exclusive legal rights to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, namely the exclusive legal right to distribute RHEL in binary form, and most importantly, the accompanying exclusive legal right to pass along the ISV certifications associated with the RHEL binary distribution. Red Hat uses a legal vehicle, a cleverly crafted license it calls a subscription agreement, to enable it to possess these exclusive legal rights in a product that can continue to be marketed as open source.
The end result? If you want to run any of the RHEL-certified applications and receive support from the ISV, you have little choice but to buy RHEL from Red Hat on whatever terms it specifies. By any definition of the term, that’s a proprietary position. The real genius of the scheme is that Red Hat’s subscription agreement is consistent with the letter of the licenses that cover the constituent technologies, as the GPL and most other FOSS licenses say nothing about binary distribution rights. Red Hat’s "open source leader" market position that has served them so well for so many years remains intact.