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Thoughts on IBM’s acquisition of Red Hat

by Karen Sandler on October 31, 2018

There’s been quite a stir in our communities following the announcement that IBM is acquiring Red Hat. As I considered the announcement, one part of the email to employees by Jim Whitehurst posted on the Red Hat blog really struck me:

I appreciate that everyone will experience a range of emotions as a result of this news. Excited, anxious, surprised, fear of the unknown, including new challenges and working relationships - these are all ways I would describe my emotions. What I know is that we will continue to focus on growing our culture as part of a new organization. We will continue to focus on the success of our customers. We will continue to nurture our relationships with partners. Collaboration, transparency, participation, and meritocracy - these values make us Red Hat and they are not changing. In fact, I hope we will help bring this culture across all of IBM.

In addition to the normal anxiety, surprise and fear experienced by employees of companies in the wake of an announcement of a merger, takeover or ordinary reorganization, this transaction will also reverberate through the community outside of the company. Free software contributors across many communities and industries are feeling some of the same apprehension and unease that ordinarily would be reserved for employees.

I wish IBM and Red Hat luck, and I’m optimistic that the partnership will yield good things for both companies and their employees. I hope that following the acquisition, Red Hat is able to maintain its special relationship to the free and open source communities it shepherds, and that its employees continue to feel empowered to support critical free software solutions in a community-focused way. I also hope that in its announcement to keep Red Hat its own unit within IBM is an indication of IBM’s support of Red Hat’s unique business and that the deal does wind up bringing that culture to more of IBM. While some folks at IBM are important contributors to free software, IBM’s is primarily a culture of proprietary software and Red Hat’s is one of open source, so in my view this solution is likely to yield the most success anyway.

I’ve heard people imagining the best from this deal, and also people imagining the worst. The one thing everyone can agree on is that there’s a lot of uncertainty, despite whatever reassurances are contained in corporate messaging. Because of this, I think it’s a good time to remind everyone of the ways we can protect ourselves now and in the future from these kinds of uncertainties related to changes in ownership, structure or motivations of corporate players in free and open source software:

  • Use copyleft. Quite a lot of the software projects that Red Hat plays a critical role in are licensed under a version of the GPL. When we use strong copyleft we set the ground rules for corporate actors to participate with each other and with the public. We get a level playing field and assurance that companies will be less incentivized to go their own way. (We also get other good benefits like the right to the source code, allowing us to be in control of the technology we rely on.)

  • Support strong charities. Nonprofits, and in particular charitable nonprofits, keep the community’s interests at the forefront. They can serve as copyright aggregators in a more trusted way, facilitate cooperation of different stakeholders and function in a variety of ways to forward the long term interest of software freedom. The more we invest in our critical foundations, the less vulnerable we are to changes in corporate actors. The stronger foundations like GNOME, Conservancy and the FSF are, the easier it is for communities to weather a new direction from a prominent company.

  • Encourage diversely held interests. Making sure that interests are not aggregated in single for-profit actors insulates communities against a change in ownership of a company. For effective success in using copyleft, copyrights must not only be with for-profit companies but have substantial copyright holding from charities and individuals. Also, technical leadership should include actors from different types of entities. When copyrights are held by many actors in the field (or by charitable nonprofits), it’s much harder to relicense projects as proprietary or on otherwise less ideal terms, and copyleft enforcement is a community-driven rather than for-profit activity. When care of the technical direction of a project isn’t significantly concentrated in one company, free software projects are more robust. Development may be slower with community-led contribution, but we can have greater confidence about the stability of the project and the community.

The interests of companies are not always aligned with the free software community or the public. Companies that seem to be in one stable condition today may change dramatically tomorrow. While I expect Red Hat to flourish under IBM ownership, the acquisition is a good example of the kinds of changes we must be prepared for down the road, whether it be with Red Hat or any of the other companies on which we’ve come to rely.

Tags: conservancy, GPL

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