Who controls free software?

Does Red Hat's aquisition of Cygnus give the company the final say on free software's future?

By Andrew Leonard

Published November 18, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

So Red Hat -- the leading U.S. distributor of the Linux-based operating system -- announced Monday that it will take advantage of its sky-high stock valuation to acquire Cygnus Solutions, the first company ever to make a business out of selling and creating free software. Should the rest of the nascent free-software industry start trembling in its open-source boots? Red Hat already employs the largest concentration of top echelon Linux kernel hackers. But now, in a single stroke, the company has also gobbled up a pool of programming stars who work directly on other crucial parts of the free-software infrastructure.

Most media attention -- and public Red Hat statements -- has focused on the "synergy" created by the merger of the two companies. Red Hat assembles distributions (packages of Linux-based operating systems); Cygnus creates advanced programming tools and software aimed at the fast-growing "embedded systems" niche. But Cygnus programmers are also central to the ongoing development of at least two pieces of software -- the GNU compiler and the GNU C libraries -- that are absolutely essential to any Linux-based operating system. The compiler -- usually referred to as "gcc" -- is a tool that translates software programs into a form understandable by a computer. The C libraries contain code that is used and reused by software applications, such as graphic elements that appear in multiple applications.

All GNU (an acronym for "GNU's not Unix") software, as well as the Linux kernel itself, is protected by the GNU General Public License (or GPL). The GPL, conceived by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation, is the bedrock upon which vast amounts of free software stands firm -- the GPL ensures that the underlying source code to a software program will be freely available to the general public. Cygnus and Red Hat have long been two companies with excellent reputations for "GPL-ing" most of the software that their programmers produce. But just protecting software with the GPL isn't enough, say some free software advocates -- there's also the all-important issue of exactly who owns the copyright to that software.

Cygnus employees work under a "company rider" or blanket
agreement, that automatically assigns the copyright for several key
free-software programs, like gcc and the C libraries, to the Free Software
Foundation, (while retaining the copyright for some programs). Red Hat has
a similar agreement in place covering software for which the original
copyright is owned by the FSF.

Why is this important? The owner of the copyright has the right to change the terms of the license under which the software is distributed. Any code that has at one time been protected by the GPL will still always be freely available, but new versions of that code could conceivably be released under different terms, even, potentially, as proprietary, closed-source software. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is considered by most programmers to be highly unlikely to perpetrate any such license changes for the software to which it holds the copyright. But Red Hat is now a publicly traded corporation beholden, in the long run, to profit-hungry shareholders. Who can predict what will happen to such a company?

No one is accusing Red Hat of having actual plans to change the terms of the license under which it produces and distributes software. It is also unclear whether Red Hat will alter Cygnus' company policy with respect to the software that Cygnus programmers create. There's even a case to be made that Red Hat respects the sanctity of free software more than Cygnus. While Red Hat distributes virtually all of the new software its programmers write under the GPL, Cygnus has for several years been experimenting with a range of licenses for its software, and has several closed-source products.

Still, to some observers, the question of copyright and licensing -- the question, ultimately, of who controls the GNU software developers -- is the single most important question in the world of free software. Red Hat now bestrides that world, more than ever before, like a colossus. Even if most individual free-software developers appear unconcerned with the implications of the Red Hat-Cygnus merger, corporate competitors to Red Hat might have reason to be nervous.

"The problem is that I don't think a corporation, particularly a public one, whose allegiances are only to its shareholders and its customers, can be trusted to keep software free," says Bradley Kuhn, a free-software developer who has done work for the FSF.

Kuhn worries that shareholders might see the potential of greater profits from proprietary software.

"If this were to happen," says Kuhn, "and the company holds the copyright, they can license no future versions as free software. Of course, the community would have that last free version and that couldn't be taken away, but if the primary developers all work for the company, then the community is forced to fork a new version and begin anew -- and the expertise may very well be lost to the proprietary world."

Who would stand to lose most from such a development? One possibility is other distribution vendors, who, even as they take a publicly cautious attitude towards the merger, can't be overjoyed to see Red Hat solidify its position in the marketplace.

"I guess it comes down to the question of whether you can buy people or not," says Cliff Miller, CEO of TurboLinux. This is the open source world's first test of a time-honored, competitive strategy in the software marketplace -- buying talent to consolidate a company's grip. "You certainly hope that the open-source community can stay open and that an acquisition by a public company is not going to change that."

"I think we sort of have to wait and see how Red Hat as a company interacts with other companies and whether its track record reflects what it is saying in public," says Miller. "We certainly don't want to have a company that is dominating the open-source landscape by sheer money and brute force. That's not the way Linux is supposed to be or open source is supposed to be."

Can you buy people in the world of free software? It's a good question -- and the answer to it, in the specific case of Cygnus, may offer the best reassurance to the community at large as to what the merger of Red Hat and Cygnus may entail. Cygnus programmers enjoy a widespread reputation for being committed to the principles of free software, and are said to be quite unwilling to bend in the face of corporate attempts to tell them to do things that they don't want to do.

They are also extremely cognizant of the dangers inherent in the merger. On Tuesday, Jeff Law, a Cygnus employee who is one of the lead developers on the GNU compiler, posted a note to the main gcc mailing list indicating that the "steering committee" for gcc was contemplating taking steps to ensure that the committee would not be dominated by Red Hat/Cygnus employees, As for the GNU C libraries -- those who are personally familiar with Ulrich Drepper, the lead maintainer for that software package, become mightily amused at the thought that he would be involved in a move towards a proprietary direction.

"[Drepper] is a very stubborn German guy," says Jordan Hubbard, a leading FreeBSD developer, "and he would draw many unpleasant allusions to previous Germans in the 1940s if they tried to put him under their thumb. He would make so much noise that it would become a public relations disaster."

Hubbard's opinion is worth noting. FreeBSD is an open-source operating system directly descended from Unix, and therefore separate from -- and a commercial competitor to -- the GNU/Linux family. But FreeBSD does use the GNU compiler, and FreeBSD developers could be excused for wondering what the future of gcc might be, now that Cygnus is about to be acquired by Red Hat. But Hubbard professes to be unworried.

If Red Hat ever changed the license for the compiler, notes Hubbard, programmers would continue working with the last GPL'ed version of the software, and create their own new versions. While this would represent a potentially unhealthy "fork" in the codebase, such events do happen from time to time, when necessary. But right now, says Hubbard,"Red Hat is talking the right talk."

"I haven't seen any evidence that Dr Evil works at Red Hat," adds D. V. Henkel-Wallace, a founder of Cygnus who departed several years ago.

"Whether that will remain the case as their shareholders start exerting their own scenarios," adds Hubbard, "I don't know."

In any case, says John Gilmore, another long-departed founder of Cygnus, the general free-software marketplace has grown too large for any one company to dominate it by snapping up a few high profile developers.

"Ten years ago it might have been dangerous for the health of free software if this many GNU contributors worked in the same company." says Gilmore. "But to put this in perspective, ten years ago, GNU contributors were delighted to find jobs at Cygnus, where they could get salaries for what had previously been their avocation, research interest, or hobby... Today the web of free-software contributions is very broad, and some are paid by their employers to work on it... Even merged, I doubt that Red Hat employs even five percent of GNU and Linux contributors."

"Many of the senior [programmers] at Cygnus were serious stockholders," Gilmore adds. "One of our earliest programmers holds stock now worth about $10 million; there are four with more than $3 million and another five or more with more than $1.4 million. These guys will start doing what they want, regardless of what Cygnus or Red Hat tells them to do ... Most of these guys are happiest when hacking, and I expect Cygnus to work hard to keep them happy."

Red Hat stands by its record.

"If you look at Red Hat's history of being supportive of open-source principles and licensing the code that we develop under the GPL, and working in conjunction with other developers across the world," says corporate counsel Dave Shumannfang, " I think that we've demonstrated a very strong commitment to being a contributing member of the open-source community and we certainly intend to demonstrate that commitment."

As for Red Hat's policy on the copyrights of GPL-protected software, Shumannfang drew a distinction between software programs that the FSF already owns the copyright to, and new programs created by third parties.

"There are a whole slew of GPL'ed programs that the FSF does not own the copyright to," adds Shumannfang. "But for those programs that are [originally] copyrighted by the FSF, for any changes or enhancements to those programs, we assign that copyright to the FSF."

Michael Tiemann, CEO of Cygnus, couldn't be reached for comment. But at least one Cygnus programmer was unalarmed by the prospects of Red Hat ownership -- particularly with respect to the area of GPL licensing.

"I don't see that as a major concern," says Tom Tromey, a programmer who works on the Java front end to the GNU compiler, "and here's why. Cygnus may have a blanket agreement [for some copyright assignations to the FSF] in place, but it turns out that Red Hat is even more of a free-software company. My understanding is that their gut reaction is to make everything free, while Cygnus in recent years has been exploring more of a mix of free and non-free software. If anything I think what we are going to see is the Cygnus side of things moving towards more freeness."

"I can understand that there is a potential fear," says Tromey, "but I think that's largely a potential fear from people who aren't intimate with the process. It's a theoretical fear."

So, in theory, there may be a problem. In reality, nothing to get agitated about, at least not yet. Stay tuned.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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