FUDCon Tempe: Red Hat Legal Talks

During FUDCon Tempe, I managed to “Live IRC” a couple of the sessions I assisted. Throughout the week, I intend to publish a summary + pictures of the talks I assisted. The following is a paraphrasis of the talk. Quotes may not be 100% accurate.The pictures (CC-By) were taken by myself by a Nexus One cellphone, while attempting to transcribe. Excuse the blurriness.

Richard Fontana: I am a Fedora User. I have Fedora 14 installed on two laptops and a desktop, and I run F13 on a VPS

When I think about Red Hat Legal, and Fedora, and the stuff I read on Bugzilla and Mailing Lists, the following quotes come out:

We can’t do this

It’s too risky

Asking Red Hat Legal is asking a Black Hole

Red Hat Legal got this wrong

Red Hat Legal is run by humans, and humans sometimes make mistakes. It’s a small department, there’s about 40 Red Hat employees in the department, and only about 15 are actually lawyers.

There’s a team that focuses on business transactions, another handles security reporting, another handles public policy. There’s also governmental affairs and intellectual property. The IP Group is the one that helps Fedora.

Rob Tiller leads the group, with Adam Avruinin running patents, I (Richard Fontana) work with Open Source, Copyrights, Patents and Standards, And some others with more.

Red Hat Lawyers generally arrive with limited technical knowledge about software, and limited or no knowledge about Linux or Free Software. They’re not hired because they’re experts at Free Software, but that they’re experts at being lawyers. They do learn while they’re on the job, and the Open Source ideology influences them. No one works exclusively on Fedora.

What is Fedora? A project.

If you go to the Fedora project Website, you’ll see a lot of statements. It’s not really one thing. It’s a lot of people doing different things.

Fedora is a lot of people doing different things

Sometimes, it means the software. Sometimes Fedora means the community.

I see this as a composition between the Community and Red Hat, the actual Fedora Project.

Legally, Fedora may be something “controlled” by Red Hat. You need a clear definition of what “control” is to come to that conclusion.

Fedora is not a Red Hat product. Fedora is more of a Red Hat project. It is not owned by Red Hat. Red Hat owns the trademark, and invests a lot of resources and people onto Fedora, but it would be offensive to refer as Fedora as ‘owned by Red Hat’ to all Fedora contributors.

"I really believe that the Fedora Project represents the soul of Red Hat." Max Spevack, 2007

Max Spevack then asked Richard: “Is everything owned on a legal sense?” The answer was no.

The Answer is 'none of the above'

All lawyers have clients. Red Hat is the client in our case. A lawyer is employed by an organization, and represents that organization. That said, the interests of Red Hat don’t always go hand-to-hand with the Fedora Project. This doesn’t mean that there are conflicts all the time, just that it might happen, and as lawyers we have a duty of confidentiality to our client (Red Hat).

This often conflicts with the desire of transparency in FOSS project development.

What justifies Red Hat’s legal role? If Fedora isn’t our client, why do we make decisions affecting Fedora?

Red Hat is the corporate investor that subsidizes, sponsors, and hosts Fedora. They employ engineers to work wholly or partially on Fedora, and appoints the Fedora Project Leader.

Red Hat is the main risk-bearer. All software is risky, and Red Hat is assuming all risks.

Not that Fedora is risky… One thing I’ve liearned is that there’s something problematic when a community project has too close of a relationship with a company.

There’s been an incident, and I won’t go into details, where a certain Big Company got bought by another Bigger Company and a lot of open source projects started dying (Ed: or being forked).

Red Hat believes that there are ideals of equality that run through Free Software that apply to them.

One solution: Independence.  The decision to make a Fedora Foundation is dead, but the Legal department is still open to exploring benefits.

Independence wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem, case in point: Apache.

Certain people gave me the idea that Apache was a frontend to IBM, so being an independent organization wouldn’t create a new image.

So, if we’re not going to be an independent organization, why do it? Minimize the risk to Red Hat, and maximize direct business benefit (Fedora is a RHEL Upstream). No distro can be a public utility. “There’s certain things that Fedora wants to ship, but may be too risky for Red Hat”, the best examples are Patent Encumbrance.

All software is patent encumbered in some sense. We’re not making decisions for the whole world, but we do need to minimize the risks for Red Hat.

On the plus side:

  • We do promote community growth, to limit Red Hat corporate control.
  • We do help out a lot of the engineers and the employees that work on Fedora
  • We ensure Fedora’s survival, as a community project.
  • Red Hat may own the trademark, but Fedora will survive.

If Red Hat disappeared, or turned over to the Dark Side (Which we’re hoping never happens), Fedora will survive in some form.

We’ve helped out with things like the Fedora “Contributors License Agreement”. The way we reinterpreted it, mainly thanks to spot, it empowers Fedora community members to control what we contribute. It minimizes legal problems for contributors. The Fedora Project comes the closest to doing everything right.

Fedora is very important for Red Hat, because it’s important for the rest of the world. It’s one of the most successful communities, and because of this, and of mistakes made in the past by Red Hat… Fedora overcame that.

Other projects can learn from Red Hat and Fedora. The fact that Fedora is grounded on principles, legal principles, what packages can be shipped. This benefits Free Software generally, and benefits Red Hat.

Next up, Pam Chestek’s Fedora Trademark Talk.

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8 comments on “FUDCon Tempe: Red Hat Legal Talks
  1. Máirín says:

    This ROCKS, Nushio! Thank you so much for doing this – I missed the legal talk so this is VERY helpful. Keep up the great work! :)

  2. Mel says:

    Thanks for transcribing – I missed this talk and really wanted to go see it, so it’s great to be able to hear what Richard was talking about!

  3. Richard Fontana says:

    Nushio, first, thanks for attending my talk and writing this up! It reminds me I need to post my slides. I think your writeup is mostly very accurate. One error I note (maybe originating with me though if I misspoke): I meant to say that Fedora is the “Red Hat project” that comes closest to doing everything right. I’d like to also say that Red Hat comes close to doing everything right too, but that wasn’t a point I was making in this talk, and in fact I tried to acknowledge that Red Hat had made some mistakes and learned from them. :-)

    • Nushio says:

      Sorry Richard, Ill correct this as soon as I get to a real, physical keyboard.

      I did take (blurry) pictures of all the slides, but only put about half of those on the blogpost. The actual slides would be a welcome addition :)

  4. Richard Fontana says:

    Oh, one other correction: I stated that I have F14 installed on two laptops and a desktop, and I run F13 on a VPS. :-)

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