Fedora Project: Why No Foundation?
Apr 05, 2006, 17:00 (5 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Max Spevack)
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To my fellow Fedora community members:
As many of you are aware, FUDCon Boston is this Friday. One of
the most important topics that we will be discussing there is the
future of the Fedora Project, specifically with regard to the
I'd like to ask you all to read the document that follows this
note. It reviews Red Hat's intentions in initially announcing the
Fedora Foundation, and outlines the problems that have led us to
the decision to move in a different direction. It also discusses
the plan that we are implementing instead, and the steps that we
are taking to ensure that the Fedora Project continues to thrive
It is as complete, honest, and transparent as we can make it. If
you feel that there are places in which it lacks those qualities,
call us on it, and we will respond.
This document represents the work of many people both inside of
Red Hat and within the Fedora community. It is a long read, but a
very worthwhile one.
So take a look, read, digest, and share your thoughts. I look
forward to discussing this in great detail on email, and also with
as many of you as possible in person at LinuxWorld and at FUDCon
over the next few days. Many of Red Hat's most active Fedora folks
will be at those two shows, so please come and talk with us.
Last June, Red Hat announced its intention to launch the Fedora
Foundation. We've had a lot of smart people working hard to make
this Foundation happen, but in the end, it just didn't help to
accomplish our goals for Fedora. Instead, we are restructuring
Fedora Project, with dramatically increased leadership from within
the Fedora community.
The next obvious question--"Why no Foundation?"--deserves a
When we announced the Foundation, it was with a very specific
purpose, and in a very specific context. The announcement was made
by Mark Webbink, who has been the intellectual property guru at Red
Hat for a long time now. His stated goal for the Foundation: to act
as a repository for patents that would protect the interests of the
open source community.
Once we announced the intention to form a Foundation, people
inside and outside of Red Hat were interested in working beyond the
stated purpose--an intellectual property repository--and instead
saw this new Foundation as a potential tool to solve all sorts of
Fedora-related issues. Every Fedora issue became a nail for the
Foundation hammer, and the scope of the Foundation quickly became
too large for efficient progress.
A team moved forward to create the Foundation itself. We created
the legal entity, came up with some very basic and flexible bylaws,
and appointed a board to run it temporarily. This all happened
pretty quickly, because this was the easy part. We had articles of
incorporation in September 2005.
Then came the hard part: articulating the precise
responsibilities of the Foundation. This conversation took months,
but ultimately it came back around, again and again, to a single
question: "What could a Fedora Foundation accomplish that the
Fedora Project, with strong community leadership, could not
So here, in order, were the possible answers to that
question--and why we found, in every single case, that the Fedora
Foundation was not the right answer.
ONE: The Fedora Foundation could be an entity for the
development of an open source patent commons.
This was the obvious starting place, and what we actually
announced. One of the lurking concerns of the open source community
is the threat of software patents. The Fedora Foundation could have
been an ideal repository for defensive patents. We envisioned
soliciting patentable ideas from businesses and/or individuals,
paying for the prosecution of these patents, and then guaranteeing
open source developers the unrestricted right to code against these
patents using a similar mechanism to the Red Hat patent promise.
What we weren't counting on was the rapid progress of the Open
Invention Network (http://www.openinventionnetwork.com/press.html),
which serves a similar purpose for businesses in a much more
compelling way. Without going into too much detail, it became clear
to us that OIN is going to be the 800-pound gorilla in the patent
commons space, and we were eager to join forces.
OK, so much for soliciting patents from businesses. What about
individuals? If we were to focus the Fedora Foundation's efforts on
soliciting patentable ideas from individuals, how many could we
get? Our gut decision: not many. Most developers who actually work
for a living have agreements with their employers that prevent them
from pursuing patents independently. Many university students who
pursue patents are required to grant them to the university.
After putting a lot of work into the idea of a Fedora Foundation
patent commons, in the end it just didn't seem compelling. So we
shelved the idea.
TWO: The Fedora Foundation could act as a single point of
standing for legal issues.
The Free Software Foundation serves this purpose for the GNU
projects. We thought that the Fedora Foundation might successfully
serve the same purpose for Fedora projects. Have you ever noticed
that the GNU projects all require contributors to assign copyright
to the FSF? That's because there's this legal idea called
"standing" that matters deeply to lawyers and judges. Here's a
little skit that helps to explain why standing is important:
BAILIFF: Come to order for case Z-38-BB-92. Plaintiff is Small
Software Project. Defendant is Great Big Computer Corporation.
JUDGE: OK, have a seat, folks. The docket is busy today, and
I've got a doctor's appointment in two hours. Plaintiff, what's
this all about?
PLAINTIFF'S COUNSEL: Well, your honor, there's this license
called the GPL that the defendant is *totally* violating.
Basically, they stole the plaintiff's code and put it into their
DEFENDANT'S COUNSEL: Hold it right there. Your Honor, plaintiff
doesn't have standing in this case. There's 100 different
developers that wrote this code, and the plaintiff only represents
six of them. Plaintiff clearly doesn't even have the legal right to
sue us, Your Honor.
JUDGE: Looks like this case could be Pretty Hard, and this whole
"standing" thing gives me a perfect excuse not to think about it.
Counsel, get back to me when you've got the other 94
So, standing is a big concern. In the world of lawyers, it's one
of the big potential unknowns around defending open source
projects, especially projects that have lots of contributors.
The obvious problem with establishing standing in this way,
though, is that a single entity *must* own *everything* in your
project. That's why the FSF *requires* copyright assignment.
What Fedora projects currently exist where copyright assignment
Well... none, as it turns out. Let's look at some of the current
Fedora projects as examples.
At present, the two most successful Fedora projects are Core and
Extras--which, together, basically constitute a big Linux
distribution. And what is a distribution? Ideally, it's a
high-quality repackaging and integration of content owned by
others. That's the whole point. In such cases, copyright assignment
makes no sense at all.
Then there's the Fedora Documentation project, which produces
documentation and makes it available under the Open Publication
without options. Given the liberal nature of this license, it just
doesn't seem all that useful to ask contributors to assign
copyright for defense of these works.
Then there's the Fedora Directory Server, which Red Hat
purchased and open sourced. No question who holds standing there;
it's Red Hat. The time may come when the Fedora Directory Server
project is ready to incorporate lots of changes from the community,
but until that time comes, the question of copyright assignment is
pretty much a theoretical question.
Which is what a lot of this comes down to--the question of legal
standing is either an open or theoretical question at best, and
probably better left to an organization such as the FSF that
focuses a great deal more attention on these types of
Put another way: we have a finite amount of resources to make
Fedora better. How much of that cash should be going to expensive
lawyers--especially if Red Hat already has lawyers who have a
strong incentive to defend Fedora, should such a defense prove to
So the Fedora Foundation didn't seem compelling as a mechanism
for copyright assignment, either.
THREE: The Fedora Foundation could act as an entity for funding
Fedora-related activities that Red Hat didn't have great interest
Funny thing, that. We asked some of our closest friends this
question: "Would you donate to an independent Fedora Foundation?"
The answers were very interesting, and ran the gamut. Some people
were incredibly enthusiastic: "We'd love to give money!" Some were
neutral: "Thanks, but we'd rather contribute code." And some were
less enthusiastic: "Red Hat is a successful, profitable company.
Why are you asking *me* for money?"
Here's another funny thing: if you choose to incorporate as a
non-profit entity in the United States, then you subject yourself
to a number of rigorous IRS tax tests. One of these tests is the
"public support test." If you say you're a public charity, well by
golly, you have to prove it. If, within four years, you aren't
collecting fully one third of your money from public sources, then
you're not actually a public charity.
People are always shocked when we tell them how many resources
Red Hat puts into Fedora. If we were to make the Fedora Foundation
a truly independent entity, then we'd have to track every dime of
that expense as "in-kind contributions". That means we'd have to
- The cost of bandwidth for distributing Fedora to the
- Every hour that Red Hat engineers spend working on Fedora,
whether that is the actual writing of code, release engineering,
- Legal expenses of running a Foundation;
- Administrative expenses of running a Foundation.
As an intellectual exercise, let's ignore all of those numbers
for now except for bandwidth. Back in the day, when Red Hat would
release a distro, we would regularly get angry calls from network
admins at big datacenters, complaining that we were eating all of
their bandwidth. If you ever meet any of our IT guys over a beer,
be sure to ask them about the time we melted a switch at UUNet.
The demand for Fedora is every bit as high, and the March 20
release of Fedora Core 5 was no exception. So let's take a
conservative guess and say that the bandwidth cost for distributing
Fedora comes to $1.5 million a year. Yes, even though we have
BitTorrent trackers and Fedora mirror sites worldwide.
That means that a public Fedora Foundation would have to raise
$750k in public funds--remember the one-third public support
test--every single year, just to pay for *bandwidth*, assuming no
growth and no other expenses.
So what would happen, under such a scenario, if Red Hat were to
decide to spend more money on Fedora? Because that's exactly what
Red Hat wants to do.
There were alternatives to the public charity angle. We could
have set up a private operating foundation, and we explored this
avenue--but then it wouldn't really be an independent entity. It
would be a shell. The fact that Red Hat would still likely bear the
legal risk of Foundation decisions, and the complication of raising
public funds, made any 501(c) less attractive.
In short: the fund raising burden for a truly independent Fedora
Foundation would be terrifying. So the Fedora Foundation clearly
wasn't compelling as a fund raising entity--if anything, it
represented an impediment to building a better Fedora Project.
FOUR: The Fedora Foundation could provide mechanisms for more
community participation in key decision-making processes.
From the day the Fedora Project was started over two years ago,
it's been our goal to build these mechanisms, Foundation or no
Foundation. How successful have we been?
Initially, we had some problems. In the last year, though, we've
had some pretty clear successes. The Fedora Extras project is a
good example here. When we officially launched it in February 2005
at FUDCon Boston, we put together a steering committee that
consisted of a pretty even mix of Red Hat and community packagers.
At FUDCon Germany last summer, we strengthened the group with more
European members. Earlier this year, we successfully handed off
leadership of the committee to a community member. Red Hat
continues to provide logistical and legal support, but Fedora
Extras policy is determined by the community.
So what happens when the Fedora Extras Steering Committee (also
known as FESCO) runs into difficulty? Well, they escalate the issue
to "the Board." And who is "the Board?" It's been the people
running the Fedora Foundation--but it's also been the people
running the Fedora Project. Whenever "the Board" had been asked to
make a decision, there's been no practical distinction between
"Project" and "Foundation."
What *is* vital, whether we're talking about "The Foundation" or
"The Project," is the actual presence of community members on the
board--but more on that later.
FIVE: The Fedora Foundation could serve as a truly independent
entity, providing the ability for Fedora to grow separately from
Red Hat's interests.
This is the real heart of the matter. This is what some people
want to see: a more independent Fedora. This is The Question That
Must Be Answered.
The simple and honest answer: Red Hat *must* maintain a certain
amount of control over Fedora decisions, because Red Hat's business
model *depends* upon Fedora. Red Hat contributes millions of
dollars in staff and resources to the success of Fedora, and Red
Hat also accepts all of the legal risk for Fedora. Therefore, Red
Hat will sometimes need to make tough decisions about Fedora. We
won't do it often, and when we do, we will discuss the rationale
behind such decisions as openly as we can--as we did with the
recent Mono decision.
But just because Red Hat has veto power over decisions, it does
not follow that Red Hat wants to use that power. Nor does it follow
that Red Hat must make all of the important decisions about Fedora.
In fact, effective community decision making is one of the most
direct measures of Fedora's success.
The most important promise about Fedora--once free, always
free--still stands. We aim to set the standard for open source
innovation. A truly open Fedora Project is what makes that
The New Fedora Project Leadership Model
Since Fedora's inception two years ago, a diverse global
community has developed around Fedora--and, as in any open source
project, natural leaders have emerged. The time has come to reward
some of these leaders with the opportunity to define the direction
of the Fedora Project at the highest level.
Therefore, we've reconstituted the Fedora Project Board to
include these community leaders directly.
Initially, there are nine board members: five Red Hat members
and four Fedora community members. This Board is responsible for
making all of the operational decisions of the greater Fedora
project, including decisions about budget and strategic
In addition to the nine board members, there is also be a
chairman appointed by Red Hat, who has veto power over any
decision. It's our expectation that this veto power will be used
infrequently, since we're all aware of the negative consequences
that could arise from the use of such power in a community
The chairman of the Fedora Project is Max Spevack. Max has been
with Red Hat since 2004, previously as a QA engineer and QA team
lead for Red Hat Network. He is a member of the Fedora Ambassadors
steering committee, and has been a Linux user since 1999.
The Fedora Project board members from Red Hat are Jeremy Katz,
Bill Nottingham, Elliot Lee, Chris Blizzard, and Rahul
Jeremy Katz is a Red Hat engineer. He is the longtime maintainer
for Anaconda, and a founding member of the Fedora Extras steering
Bill Nottingham joined Red Hat in May of 1998, working on
projects ranging from the initial port of Red Hat Linux to ia64,
booting and hardware detection, multilib content definition and
fixing, and is currently doing work related to stateless Linux.
He's also been involved in various technical lead details, such as
package CVS infrastructure and distribution content definition.
Elliot Lee has been a software engineer at Red Hat since 1996.
His open source contributions include release engineering for
Fedora Core, co-founding the GNOME project, and maintaining
assorted open source libraries and utilities. He is a founding
member of the Fedora Extras steering committee. Elliot current
leads the Fedora infrastructure team, making it easier and
enjoyable for contributors to get more done.
Chris Blizzard is an engineering manager for Red Hat. He has
served on the board of the Mozilla Foundation, and is currently
leading the One Laptop Per Child project for Red Hat.
Rahul Sundaram is a Red Hat associate based in Pune, India. He
is a longstanding contributor to multiple Fedora projects, a Fedora
Ambassador for India, and a member of the Fedora Ambassadors
The Fedora Project board members from the community are Seth
Vidal, Paul W. Frields, Rex Dieter, and a fourth board member to be
named as soon as possible.
Seth Vidal is the project lead for yum, which is one of the key
building blocks for software management in Fedora. He also
maintains mock, the basis for the Fedora Extras build system. He is
a founding member of the Fedora Extras steering committee, and he
was one of the people chiefly responsible for the first ever
release of Fedora Extras packages in 2005. Seth is also the lead
administrator of the infrastructure at fedoraproject.org, which
includes the Fedora project wiki, RSS feed aggregator, and
Paul W. Frields has been a Linux user and enthusiast since 1997,
and joined the Fedora Documentation Project in 2003, shortly after
the launch of Fedora. As contributing writer, editor, and a
founding member of the Documentation Project steering committee,
Paul has worked on a variety of tasks, including the Documentation
Guide, the Installation Guide, the document building
infrastructure, and the soon-to-emerge RPM packaging toolchain.
Paul is also a Fedora Extras package maintainer.
Rex Dieter works as Computer System Administrator in the
Mathematics Department at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. Rex
is a KDE advocate and founded the KDE Red Hat project. He is also
an active contributor to Fedora Extras. Rex lives in Omaha,
Nebraka, with his wife, 2 children, and 4 cats.
It's true that a lot of the key governance details--term length,
board composition, election or appointment process--have yet to be
resolved. One of the first responsibilities of the new board will
be to work with the Fedora community to answer these questions.
Red Hat has been supporting a free Linux distribution for over
ten years, and Red Hat will *always* support a free Linux
distribution. We want to work together with the Fedora community to
make Fedora better. We want a Fedora that is a true partnership
between Red Hat and the community. We want to build effective
models to make that partnership real. We want to see the folks at
MySQL managing MySQL in Fedora. We want to see the folks from
kde.org managing KDE in Fedora. We want to see the folks at Planet
CCRMA managing audio production applications in Fedora. We want
Fedora to be a launching pad not just for open source software, but
for open content of all kinds. We want the Fedora Project to be a
way to fill the community with high quality software and content,
and we want to empower the Fedora community to innovate in ways
we'd never even considered.
The new Fedora Project Board has a strong mandate to make these
things happen, and has the full support of Red Hat. We ask that
you, the members of the Fedora community, give them your full
support as well, and we thank you for all the support you've given
us so far. We would not have made it nearly this far without your
patience, your friendship, and your tireless help.