Attack of The Red Hat Clones?

By Sean Michael Kerner (Send Email)
Posted Mar 11, 2005


Less than a month after the release of Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) version 4.0, the No. one Linux distributor finds itself walking a fine line in protecting its trademark from clones of its latest product. GPL licensing allows third parties to create 'clones' of Red Hat's Enterprise Linux 4 distribution. What can Red Hat do?

One of the fundamental tenets of open source, and in particular the General Public License (GPL), under which the Linux kernel is licensed, is that software is free and can be modified, copied, and redistributed.

That means there's not much Red Hat can do beyond protecting its own trademarks on its RHEL 4 product.

Finnish group Lineox released a RHEL 4 clone on Feb. 25. Pie Box Linux followed with its iteration on Feb. 28, and CentOS released its clone on March 2. Whitebox Linux is expected to release a RHEL 4 clone some time soon.

The key difference between the clones and RHEL itself, beyond price, is that the clones are not supported.

A Red Hat spokesperson was unavailable for comment about the clones, but recent legal correspondence from the company to some of the clones signals how Red Hat is balancing the interests of open source software with the need to protect its own interests, including its own intellectual property such as trademarks.

In letters from legal counsel, the company advises the clones against using potentially infringing marks on their sites.

One of the clone vendors, CentOS, published the letter, which it received a few weeks before it released version 4.

"We understand that you are distributing, on your Web site located at http://www.centos.org, CentOS Enterprise class Linux software that was developed using Red Hat's open source software," the letter states. "While Red Hat permits others to redistribute the software that constitutes Red Hat Linux, Red Hat does not authorize any person to use the RED HAT marks in association with such redistribution in any fashion, except by express agreement," it continued.

"In this regard, [the company] is concerned that your use of the RED HAT marks on your Web site in this manner is likely to create confusion, mistake and/or deception among consumers with respect to the source, origin, sponsorship or approval of the products sold under your company name."

The CentOS Web site has removed all Red Hat references and now refers to the company as, "a Prominent North American Enterprise Linux Vendor."

Red Hat also contacted Pie Box Linux about potential consumer confusion.

"Some time ago, they did contact us with concerns over possibly confusing use of their 'Red Hat' trademark in one of our adverts," Setchell said. "Red Hat [is] required to protect its trademarks. But they were quite friendly and polite and they went as far as to confirm that they had no objection to our product. We were more than happy to reword our advert," he said. "We have the utmost respect for Red Hat and everything they have done for the community over the years," he added. "We have absolutely no desire to upset them."

None of the clones have any direct relationship with Red Hat whatsoever, and none of the cloned enterprise distros can benefit from Red Hat's customer and technical support or vendor certification, which is included in a Red Hat subscription. The cloned products are built from essentially the same open source code as RHEL and are derived from the same Red Hat sources.

In the case of RHEL, specific branding, trademarks and other such intellectual property are removed by the clones from the Red Hat sources in order to comply with the terms of Red Hat's End-User License Agreement (EULA) and to not infringe on its intellectual property rights, such as trademark symbols.

"We describe our product as being built from the source RPMs [Package Manager] released by Red Hat," Chris Setchell, spokesman for U.K.-based Pie Box, told internetnews.com. "People are smart enough to realize this means they are getting a product that is essentially the same as Red Hat's but without the support."

The clone vendors said they do not consider themselves to be in competition with Red Hat's flagship product because they're not selling the same thing Red Hat is selling.

"Red Hat are essentially selling support; we do not offer support," Setchell explained. "This means that our targeted clients are different to those of Red Hat." He didn't say who those clients might be.

Though the clones are not necessarily in the same support business as Red Hat, that doesn't mean they ignore users' security.

"We get the freely available updates to source RPMs from Red Hat servers and rebuild them," Donavon Nelson, CentOS developer, told internetnews.com. "There is a bit of a lag between Red Hat-announced errata and it being available for CentOS."

Though total download numbers for all of the RHEL clones is unknown, if the Lineox experience is anything to go by, it's certainly not small potatoes.

Lineox co-founder Raimo Koski told internetnews.com it is difficult to estimate download numbers due to the different mirrors available.

"There were maybe several hundreds of bit torrent downloads, but I haven't tried yet to analyze the log," Koski said. "Outbound referrals from our site would suggest something like around 2,000 downloads from mirrors, so my guesstimate is from several thousand up to around 10,000."

The RHEL clone development communities also note they contribute to open source development in some way. CentOS' Nelson said that most

CentOS developers and many users submit bug reports to the Red Hat bugzilla system. Lineox's developers aren't strangers to Red Hat's development ecosystem, having made some Finnish language contributions.

"Most FC [Fedora Core] and RHEL system utilities (redhat/system-config-*) have mine or Tomi Kajala's Finnish translations, but now they are mostly maintained by Fedora volunteers," Koski said.

Pie Box developers also contribute by filing bug reports and helping out on various mailing lists.

"We realize that there are a few who view 'Enterprise Linux cloners as some form of parasite making money out of the hard work of others. In fact, we are just providing a service," Setchell said. "Anyone can download the source code to Red Hat Enterprise Linux, compile it and use it. That is the whole point of open source," he said.

"However, not everybody has the time, expertise or willingness to do this, and so we provide that service to those people."

This article was originally published on internetnews.com.

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