Issue #16 February 2006

Red Hat Speaks

Mark Webbink

This month, we speak with Mark Webbink, Red Hat's Deputy General Counsel for Intellectual Property.

We hear that Red Hat has been asked to join the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and others in the revamping of the GPL. This will be the first time in 13 years it's been changed, and a lot has happened since 1991, when v.2 was released.

What part does Red Hat have to play in this process?

Red Hat is a participant in Committee B of the the FSF-structured feedback process. Committee B is made up of industry vendors and includes Novell, Sun, IBM, Montevista, NEC, Hitachi, Intel, and others.
From the drafts that have been released, it looks like the major changes will be to address intellectual property topics such as Digital Rights Management (DRM), licensing, and patent issues. What is Red Hat's stance on DRM?
DRM is a challenging subject, and Red Hat is still formulating its position. Can a DRM scheme can be developed that protects a content provider's rights but does not interfere with or impinge on the rights of the recipient or the recipient's computer? That is the challenge. Most DRM schemes we have seen to date include some form of hardware or firmware implementation and place a large vendor in control as the "trusted party." Not sure we have seen any such entities that we believe could really be trustworthy.
What is Red Hat's stance on software patents?
Fundamentally, they are simply a bad idea. They have added nothing to innovation in the software industry. Companies pursued them for defensive purposes. However, after those same companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars getting those "defensive" patents, someone always asks about the return on investment. Even Marshall Phelps of Microsoft has conceded that that Microsoft may have been better off had software patents never come about.
We know that Red Hat holds some patents for software advancements--what does it plan to do with those? Are there more patents in store for Red Hat?
Red Hat holds a handful of patents that pertain to software, and we have made those available to the open source community under our Patent Promise. We have also made them available to all Linux users through our participation in the Open Invention Network. We also have patents pending in a number of non-software areas, but those are to assure that we can sustain and build on our customer focused business model.
At last year's Summit, you made a very well-received announcement about the formation of the Fedora Foundation. How is that going now? Anything new to report?
I do not want to preempt announcements from the Fedora Foundation board of directors, but they have made a tremendous amount of progress in building out the concept of the foundation.
Are you planning to be at this year's Summit? Will you be speaking, and if so, can you tell us what you'll be talking about?
I have heard I may be invited. :-)
We've been talking to a lot of activists lately--Cory Doctorow from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Nicholas Negroponte and others from OLPC, Eben Moglen from the FSF. [ Ed.-- all three will be at the Nashville Summit ] They are all entrenched in one battle or another, over various freedom-limiting efforts in the US and abroad. Doctorow is a writer and activist, Negroponte a philanthropist. Moglen is--like you--a lawyer. All three have different ideas about what fights are the most crucial to retain a free society. What fight would you say is the one that occupies most of your time? What other issues should we be concerned about?
I have been most focused on the issue of software patents and competition. Contrary to the commonplace belief, it is not patents that induce innovation. Rather, it is competition. I will continue to be focused on both for some time.
At the end of 2005, Diebold was recently defeated by North Carolina's Sunshine laws for not complying to the new law stating that voting machines must show their source code. This has not stopped Diebold from pursuing the same tactics in other states. What involvement did Red Hat have in defeating Diebold in NC? What advice or assistance could Red Hat offer to other states facing the same sort of situation.
Red Hat's participation was indirect through our support of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The EFF has been an effective watchdog in ensuring that public interest is observed in setting IT policies. In the case of voting machines in North Carolina, that public interest lies in assuring that the software code cannot be readily be manipulated. The best way of assuring that lack of manipulation is through disclosure. We applaud the State of North Carolina for its foresight and for the willingness to stick to its guns on this issue. While there is short-term expense in changing out voting machines, the long-term benefit in having a secure and trusted voting system is, as the credit card commercials would say, priceless.