The RHEL rebuilds debate - let's talk about values

The status quo around RHEL source code availability has changed, as has Red Hat’s stance on RHEL rebuilds. For example, we now say:

Ultimately, we do not find value in a RHEL rebuild and we are not under any obligation to make things easier for rebuilders; this is our call to make. ... Simply rebuilding code, without adding value or changing it in any way, represents a real threat to open source companies everywhere.

If the status quo has changed, doesn’t that mean that our values have changed? I believe the opposite is true - this is Red Hat fully confronting its values, taking uncomfortable steps to make our values more clear, and moving beyond an uneasy ambiguity that I think has existed for too long. And that’s not a convenient, reverse-engineered conclusion to justify the change after-the-fact. I can actually pinpoint the discussion in 2011 where our values on this became clear to me. Let me explain.

I joined Red Hat 20 years ago via the GNOME project. Any personal values I had around software freedom were not particularly strongly held, and GNOME itself had a sometimes fractious relationship with the FSF. But I was drawn in and excited by the potential of developing software in the open, with a community of like-minded contributors with diverse motivations for contributing. This was a time of open-source vs free software debates, and I found myself observing, fascinated, and leaning towards the open-source perspective. To pick one random example of the sort of argument that appealed to me (while absolutely rejected by other friends in the community):

Richard thinks there is a moral imperative underlying the free redistribution of software, and now, by extension, other information. Richard feels that since there isn't any physical cost associated with copying software, limiting free redistribution is a form of extortion. I on the other hand feel that it's immoral to try to compel someone else to give you something they've created without compensating them in some way. That is, when software is freed, it is a gift, not the result of an obligation...

When I joined Red Hat, I again found myself observing the perspectives of my colleagues and the decisions we were making. I guess I was trying to identify Red Hat's values on this knotty subject. It's a funny thing trying to pin down a group’s values - you're unlikely to find a consensus view, and neither are you simply looking for the view of a set of senior leaders.

Over time, we developed a mission statement - “To be the catalyst in communities of customers, contributors, and partners creating better technology the open source way” - and a set of behavioral values - freedom, courage, commitment, and accountability. I found the omission of anything about software freedom is telling. My sense has always been that we are reluctant to open a potentially divisive debate on this, perhaps indicating a nervousness that there is an underlying and unspoken division between community-oriented technical leaders and business-oriented executive leaders.

I happened to be in the Westford office when Oracle announced its RHEL rebuild - Unbreakable Linux - in 2006. Sentiments such as “With this move, Oracle simply rips off Red Hat's mind-share, while promising a cheaper price” were widely shared. There was a sense of existential threat, and a need to rally and respond that RHEL was “Unfakeable Linux”. I 100% bought into this, but I also wondered… isn't this software freedom in action? If our customers aren’t paying for the bits, what's the problem? And yet we did have a problem with this move. It stung. It was unfair. It wasn't in the spirit of this industry movement we thought we were all a part of. And so, it seemed pretty clear to me - this sort of software freedom was not one of our values, and if we would have no qualms about limiting this particular freedom.

Some five years later in 2011, I was involved in deciding which license we would use for an exciting new open-source project we were launching based on a codebase from an acquisition. Given a blank slate in terms of license choice, we spent some time discussing the merits of copyleft vs permissive licenses. In that discussion, we seemed to have no interest in preventing any downstream user from incorporating the codebase into a proprietary product - that was fine by us. But we did agonize over the best strategy for building a community, a community where we might hope one day to not be the largest contributor. We chose the Apache License (v2), and the discussion made something clear to me - we saw no “moral imperative” around software freedom, but we were absolutely committed to building in the open, and forming or joining healthy communities - “the open source way” was an core, unshakeable value.

And so I'm glad we're openly confronting our values on this now, even if this move disappoints any of our friends in the open-source world who have different - but hugely overlapping - values. My personal view is that we are staying true to our values even as we limit the redistribution of our products - while respecting the applicable upstream licenses.

Especially when it is in response to a move - by those software vendors or larger enterprise users who do have the resources to pay for RHEL or to create their own derivative of a community distro - to benefit or profit from the value of RHEL without paying Red Hat.

However, Red Hat remains exceptionally committed to the open-source development model, following the principle of "upstream first", developing our products in the open, building communities, and embracing the diversity of users downstream of any of these open-source projects. CentOS Stream - the recently created upstream of RHEL, a project and community that we now use to develop RHEL - shows an additional level of commitment to open-source community building that I would not have predicted 10 years ago when RHEL development (then downstream of Fedora) was entirely behind Red Hat’s firewall.

I can understand the negative reaction to this change. However, a lot of the commentary is pretty muddled, and I would be happy to see a deeper discussion of open-source values. I think that Red Hatters should be proud of our values, and embrace the debate that we have now triggered.