Is Red Hat really an Open Source company ?

This question keeps cropping up every once in a while on different LUG lists where I lurk. It is a fairly established fact now in the FOSS world (or for that matter in the software world) that businesses can be both Open Source as well as commercial (ie: for profit). However, the specifics of the mechanism for doing this is still not well understood.

As an example, there was a post on the Mumbai GLUG list, questioning whether the restrictions on the distribution of Red Hat Enterprise Linux were similar to restrictions of an ELUA of proprietary software and whether copying RHEL CDs was piracy.

Well, since a few people thought it was a good explanation, I’m posting my reply(*) here:

I think there are a few basic things that you need to understand before you understand the answers to your questions:

  1. Unlike the proprietary world, FOSS does not distinguish between developer, user and distributor. Each person receiving FOSS software, has the right to assume any or all of the three roles. There is no ‘END USER’ (for an ELUA to exist). So from that perspective, you are a distributor if you share something (using a CD, online, pen-drive …or any media).
  2. Piracy is the practice of hijacking a naval vessel and plundering it. Software Piracy is a silly nonsensical term. Software related violations include things like copyright violation, trademark infringement and unfortunately patent violations …etc.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, here is a simplified (IMHO) explanation of what everybody already said:
RHEL == Linux Kernel + GPL/BSD/MIT …etc licensed Software + Red Hat trademarks (artwork etc)

Q: How must does the RHEL distro cost ?
A: 0/-

Q: How does Red Hat make money, if the cost of the RHEL distro is 0 ?
A: Subscriptions, trainings, consultancy …and maybe more.

Q: How is the RHEL distro. distrubuted ?
A: The sources are available for free on and Red Hat provides CDs/DVDs of the distro. to it’s customers (people who buy subscriptions or undertake trainings …etc)

Q: Can you ask Red Hat to send you a RHEL distro CD if you are not a Red Hat customer ?
A: No
Update: As Thomas Cameron, points out in the comments, it is possible to get the ISO images if you sign up for an evaluation at

Q: Can you download RHEL sources from Red Hat servers ?
A: Yes

Q: Can you use the downloaded sources to make a RHEL CD ?
A: Yes
Update: Another clarification, from Thomas, although you can compile the sources and create a CD, you cannot call it RHEL. It is a clone.

Q: Can you distribute (including sharing with your neighbor) the CDs you made ?
A: Yes ! IF you remove all the trademarks from the CDs (so that your neighbour is clear about the fact that what she is getting is not coming directly from Red Hat).
Update: This is exactly what CentOS does. (thanks jkanti, for pointing that out in the comments)

Q: If you have received a CD/DVD from Red Hat (because you are a customer), can you make /exact/ copies of that CD/DVD and distribute it ?
A: No ! That is trademark violation.

Q: Instead of making copies, can you use the same CD/DVD you received from Red Hat to install RHEL on more than one systems ?
A: Yes, you can..
Update: No, you cannot. Installation of RHEL on more systems than the number of subscriptions you have purchased is considered as redistribution, which implies trademark violation. Again, thanks Thomas, for the correction.

Hope that clarifies everything. If you have more questions, ask here or just contact Red Hat directly :).

(*) verbatim, except for reformatting for the purpose of this post. Thanks Raj Mathur, for the blog post suggestion ! Of the whole bunch of things need to learn about blogging …recognizing what would make a post is the most important 🙂

  1. Hello,

    Nice write up.I would recommend putting some words on centos as well as an example.



  2. Thomas Cameron

    A couple of corrections:

    Q: Can you ask Red Hat to send you a RHEL distro CD if you are not a Red Hat customer ?
    A: Yes. You can get the ISO images from Red Hat Network if you sign up for an evaluation at

    Q: Can you use the downloaded sources to make a RHEL CD ?
    A: No. You can absolutely recompile the Red Hat source RPMs but the resultant distribution is *not* Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It is merely a clone.

    Q: Instead of making copies, can you use the same CD/DVD you received from Red Hat to install RHEL on more than one systems ?
    A: No. That's still redistribution of trademarked material. See Section 2 of Appendix 2 at for more details.

  3. Thomas,

    IANAL, but Appendix 2, Section 2 says nothing about any installation having anything to do with the Trademarks!

    OTOH, I understand that you can NOT use the original CD to perform any installation beyond the official trial period, even if you don't pay for updates and don't need updates (and obviously you can't move any newer RPM to a machine you haven't paid a subscription for), but not for Trademark reasons!

    It's because this is how the License Agreement is formulated:

    3.1 Fees and Expenses. […] "Unit" is the measurement of Software or Service usage defined in the applicable Order Form. […]

    5.1 Reporting. Client will notify Red Hat (or the Business Partner from whom Client purchased Software or Services) promptly if the actual number of Units of Software or Services utilized by Client exceeds the number of Units for which Client has paid the applicable Fees. In its notice, Client will include the number of additional Units and the date(s) on which such Units were first utilized. Red Hat (or the Business Partner) will invoice Client for the applicable Services for such Units and Client will pay for such Services no later than thirty (30) days from the date of the invoice.

    Technically, also note that India is governed by a (different? can't spot the differences) EULA:

  4. Thomas Cameron

    I have to correct my third response, I misread/misunderstood the original post as meaning installing on multiple peoples' or companies' systems. Appendix 2, section 2 of the Red Hat license talks about redistributing Red Hat Enterprise Linux. You may not use the Red Hat supplied media to install on other peoples' or companies' systems – that is redistribution of trademarked material (the Red Hat logos).

    You may absolutely use that media to install on as many of your own systems as you want. I apologize for my mistake.

  5. Thomas Cameron

    BĂ©ranger –

    Yes, that is correct – you have to report if you have installed Red Hat Enterprise Linux on more systems than you've paid for subscriptions for. I.e. if you have 10 subscriptions and you install on an 11th machine, you have to report and pay for that 11th system.

  6. 10th->11th: this is still abusive, although it's user-accepted as part of the license agreement. One should be able to install it on the 11th machine if at least one of the following is true:
    (i) the system will be deleted after 30 days (trial, possibly on a different hardware);
    (ii) the system won't get any updates at all, especially not from one of the other machines having a RHN subscription.

    Open is not always 100% open, and the "trademark" issue is only used as a pretext to provide profits that would justify the development costs at Red Hat.

  7. Thomas, BĂ©ranger –

    I'm a bit confused now, Reading the subscription agreement, my interpretation of why having more installations than subscriptions purchased, would be considered as distribution is …

    If it is correct, then installation with Red Hat provided media == distribution, in which case, the trademark violation applies, IMHO.

    (*) unlike for instance the JBoss case, where an "Installed System" is a system receiving services.

    In any case, bottom line is, this is stuff for lawyers, the right thing to assume is if you don't want to pay Red Hat, just use something proven to be 'clean' from a legal standpoint — like CentOs.

    btw, thanks for your comments !

  8. Nice thread, actually (on the mailing list).

    Putting everything the way it is (that is, not politically correct):

    — Before the split between RHEL and Fedora, Red Hat Linux was fully free to be installed on no matter how many machines you wanted; to get Enterprise-level support, you had to pay, but if you did not, you were free to do whatever you want, and the "trademark" issue was not an issue!

    — Since the split, RHEL is severely restricted. I am 1000% positive that the "trademark clause" is a stupid clause only meant to maximize the profits for RHEL. Otherwise, people could just install RHEL, but then apply the updates from CentOS, right?

    Everyone is defending its trademarks (well, some are doing it worse than others), but the way Red Hat is enforcing them here is purely an exaggeration. Once again, there was paid enterprise support even before the RHEL/Fedora split, yet the side-effects of the trademark weren't that bad as they are today.

    This is Red Hat. Take it or leave it. I personally use CentOS, and we do have CentOS at the HQ too, so it looks like the Red Hat marketing policy didn't work in our case — except for a single case of RHEL 4 Workstation, because we really needed *official* support for that customer.

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