Oracle pours fuel all over Red Hat source code drama

Big Blue is just a gold digger, says avid auditor of software licenses

Oracle claims IBM is trying to kill open source competition among Linux distributions to boost its bottom line, and has pledged to keep distributing Oracle Linux source code for free.

Yes, the same Oracle that in January 2019 ended free public updates to Oracle JDK for non-Oracle customer commercial users – prompting Red Hat to take over support for OpenJDK 6 and OpenJDK 7 – is calling out IBM's Red Hat for ending free Enterprise Linux (RHEL) source code distribution to non-customers.

Last month, Red Hat said it would stop providing RHEL source code for free, thereby withholding code improvements from downstream projects like AlmaLinux, Rocky Linux, EuroLinux, and Oracle Linux.

Under the terms of the GPL, and as far as El Reg's analysis of the situation goes, Red Hat is only obligated to provide source code to paying customers receiving RHEL binaries. As our Liam Proven noted at the end of June:

The GPL only obliges Red Hat to provide source code to parties to whom it has provided binaries, and not to the rest of the world. Red Hat customers still can get the source code, so the Hat isn't violating the GPL. The GPL doesn't free them from their Red Hat contracts: they can redistribute the source code if they so wish, but equally, the Hat can respond to them doing so by terminating their customer contracts, and that is 100 percent compliant with the GPL.

The move follows the 2020 transition of CentOS, a non-commercial Linux version tied to RHEL, into the not-quite-RHEL CentOS Stream project. This latest step has been poorly received in the open source community, as well as by Oracle.

In an essay shared on Monday, Edward Screven, Big Red's chief corporate architect, and Wim Coekaerts, head of Oracle Linux development, laid into IBM for trying to profit at the expense of the open source community.

Citing a statement made by Mike McGrath, VP of core platforms at Red Hat, that free RHEL distribution cannot continue because the biz has to pay people to work on RHEL, Screven and Coekaerts said: "Interesting. IBM doesn’t want to continue publicly releasing RHEL source code because it has to pay its engineers?

"That seems odd, given that Red Hat as a successful independent open source company chose to publicly release RHEL source and pay its engineers for many years before IBM acquired Red Hat in 2019 for $34 billion."

red hat

Red Hat's open source rot took root when IBM walked in


The Oracle duo point to CentOS, claiming IBM "effectively killed it as a free alternative to RHEL." Now, they say, Big Blue's Red Hat is attacking CentOS's successors, AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux.

"And perhaps that is the real answer to the question of why: eliminate competitors. Fewer competitors means more revenue opportunity for IBM," they speculate.

We leave it as an exercise for the reader to puzzle out the rationale for Oracle's failed $10 billion lawsuit against Google over Android's use of copyrighted Java APIs.

Oracle launched what's now called Oracle Linux back in 2006, and the plan was to provide an RHEL-compatible Linux distribution, in order not to fragment the Linux community and to support a common platform for customers and independent system vendors (ISVs).

Now that RHEL compatibility is uncertain, Screven and Coekaerts say Oracle Linux will maintain compatibility through version 9.2 and after that Big Red plans to work with customers and ISVs to fix any issues that arise.

"While Oracle and IBM have compatible Linux distributions, we have very different ideas about our responsibilities as open source stewards and about operating under the GPLv2," the Oracle pair said, taking the opportunity to encourage code contributions to Oracle Linux and to tease about potential job opportunities.

"Oracle has always made Oracle Linux binaries and source freely available to all. We do not have subscription agreements that interfere with a subscriber’s rights to redistribute Oracle Linux. On the other hand, IBM subscription agreements specify that you’re in breach if you use those subscription services to exercise your GPLv2 rights."

Changes in tech

Bruce Perens, one of the founders of the open source movement, told The Register in an email that IBM, like Red Hat before it, is gaming the GPL in his opinion.

"The GPL requires that changes be shared as source code," Perens said. "Were it written today, it would require that they be shared publicly online. Because it was invented in the days of magnetic tape for data, it requires only that source code be given to the people who receive the binary version of the program."

IBM and Red Hat, he opined, take advantage of this in a way that is perhaps unfair to the community of code contributors who don't work for IBM.

"If you have RHEL, you sign a contract that you won't give the source code to anyone else," he said, "not even the people who wrote the program and deserve to find out about bugs and fixes. That is the unfortunate reality of commercial open source today. Large companies game the paradigm and exploit the community. I don't think that we as developers should go on feeding them without substantial license changes."

Bradley Kuhn, a policy fellow at the Software Freedom Conservancy, has written at length on the RHEL transition and told The Register that what looks like a battle for enterprise customers may hurt the open source community. Kuhn also challenged Oracle's interpretation of the GPL, saying it implies the GPLv2 requires making binaries and source freely available to everyone.

"Oracle implies that the GPL requires that all source code be made available to the public," he said, asserting that IBM and Red Hat are correct when they claim they only have to provide complete corresponding source code (CCS) to those who receive a binary distribution or who request the full source in conjunction with an offer for source code from a distributor.

"While failure to provide CCS to the entire public does make someone a bad FOSS citizen, it doesn't (by itself) mean a GPL violation has occurred," said Kuhn.

"Unfortunately, the war of words between these two mostly proprietary software companies (IBM and Oracle) simply distracts from the central areas of concern with the RHEL business model," he continued.

"For example, the RHEL contracts require their customers to consent to BSA-style audits. When they audit their customers, if IBM's Red Hat finds even one extra (legitimate!) copy you made of GPL'd software, they revoke your RHEL services permanently.

If you exercise your rights under the GPL, your money is no good here

"This is why we call the business model: 'if you exercise your rights under the GPL, your money is no good here.' Whether or not this RHEL business model complies with the GPL is a matter of intense debate, and opinions differ, but no one (except Red Hat) believes that this business model is in the spirit of the GPL and FOSS."

Perens said that Kuhn believes IBM is within its rights to pursue this business model but opined that he does not agree. "Bradley should allow this to get to a court," he said.

Kuhn told The Register that doesn't quite capture his position. He said it's unclear whether IBM's business model is compatible with the GPL. "If it's permissible, it's really close to the line," he said, adding: "I don't think we should give it a pass."

So it's possible this could end up in court though it's doubtful the Software Freedom Conservancy or anyone else in the open source community is keen to file a claim – IBM has shown that it has an appetite for long, costly litigation. Kuhn would rather see the situation resolved by better behavior.

"IBM's Red Hat should voluntarily cease this practice immediately," said Kuhn.

"Red Hat has long prided themselves as being on the moral high ground above Oracle. Oracle's whole business model centers around using aggressive proprietary licensing to leave their customers in fear. I've been sad to see the RHEL business model lean more and more in that direction." ®


After this article was published, a chap at the Free Software Foundation, which oversees the GPL, got in touch to remind us, in light of Perens' comments about what the license would be like it if was written today, that version 3 of the GPL specifically addresses the offering of source code online.

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like