Red Hat Enterprise Linux is proprietary

[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”.

According to Merriam-Webster, proprietary means:

  1. of, relating to, or characteristic of a proprietor <proprietary rights>
  2. used, made, or marketed by one having the exclusive legal right <a proprietary process>
  3. 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.

7 comments on “Red Hat Enterprise Linux is proprietary

  1. David Mohring

    The “RHN Code” mentioned in the Redhat Subscription Agreement, only refers to the individual digital key used by Redhat’s customers to access, digitally sign and interact with the Redhat services. The legal terms and conditions do not effect the terms and conditions of to the customer for any of the source code released under the GPL or any other of the open source licenses.The customer and anybody else are still free to take the RedHat enterprise 3 source code, removing any public Redhat branding/trademark, and release the result under their own brand. Hence the White Box Linux project.

    Even Redhat’s enterprise offerings cannot be considered proprietary.

  2. Ian Murdock

    You missed the point.. Yes, the subscription agreement does not affect the source code. But Red Hat’s proprietary position isn’t based on source code–it’s based on ISV certifications. Can I get Oracle to support me if I’m running White Box Linux, even though it’s based on the same code base? If that’s important to me, and it’s important to a lot of people, I have no choice but to buy RHEL on whatever terms Red Hat wants to sell it to me. Proprietary position.

  3. David Mohring

    Ian, I don’t quite understand your chain of reasoning. Your claiming that it is RedHat’s relationship with third party proprietary vendors, who supply support for their closed source software, makes RedHat’s distribution proprietary.

    The flaw in your reasoning is that any amalgamation of restricted licensed proprietary and open source software effectively becomes a closed source solution. Even if you did run Oracle on White Box Linux, or even Debian for that matter, you are not even free to redistribute the whole of the resulting combination. By the same reasoning, Debian running Oracle makes Debian a proprietary distribution, which is absurd.

    There is no terms in any of the open source or free licenses which guarantee that support for the result will be provided. Support for open source licensed products is handled by a relationship between the customer and vendor that is entirely separate from the licensing of the source code.

    If Oracle, or any other vendor, demands that customers have a formal support agreement from Progeny, before providing support for Oracle products running on “componentised” Linux, That does not make the Progeny product a proprietary one.

    There are plenty of open source data bases to choose from, it’s only by choosing to use only open sourced solutions that you remain free to choose from who you purchase support.

    If your a Redhat’s Enterprise distribution customer, you remain free to select other vendors and other products, and still that the Redhat source and, in the words of Fleetwood Mac, “Go your own way”. There is no proprietary lock in.

  4. S. K. Goel

    I purchased RHEL 3.0 from Red Hat, Before purchasing the same, I asked a question from Red hat that “I want to buy one copy of RHEL 3.0 but I have 100 computers, In case I want to install the same software on my all 100 computers, Is it leagal or illegal”.

    I get replied from Red Hat that “You can install the same software on as many as machines, But Red hat will give the support on only one machine”.

    I asked the same question to Novel for suse enterprise linux, I got the same reply from them also.

  5. Adriano Galano

    Ian, I agree and disagree with you related to RedHat position. RedHat creativity show a way to profit business based in Open Source tecnologies only. Something that people like Novell have to learn yet for example.

    In other way, I’m worry about Mr. Schwartz position. Sun have been ignored Linux from several years. Now “Mr. Sun’s President” is attacking the most succesfull Linux Enterprise. Please see his blog:

    Sun is using FUD to attack RedHat. They are thinkig to Open Source Solaris and maybe they are thinking to imitate the RedHat’s subscription business model. Sun try to become Linux weak because Sun are weak.

    RedHat need our support because RedHat is part of our community also…more than Sun. And until today RedHat don’t have agreement with Microsoft and Sun yes. RedHat don’t support to SCO and Sun yes.

  6. Ian Murdock

    Sorry for the delayed response.. I’m just getting back and resettled after an extended trip to Europe, and I’m buried. I’ll address these comments in a follow-up posting, hopefully within the next few days.

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