April 6, 2002

Commentary: Linux is free, but distros aren't so open

- By James Jensen -

Linux is free, right? Well, yeah, the kernel is. But what most people don't seem to realize is that their favorite distribution of Linux may not be so free. In fact, it may be illegal for you to give a copy of (whatever) Linux to your friends. I'm not talking about after the SSSCA/CDBTPA passes, but right now.Most, if not all, Linux distros are composed primarily of Open Source software, which users are free to copy and give to others. But a lot of them, including Mandrake Linux and Red Hat Linux, also come with proprietary software on the same disc as the Open Source software.

Let's take a look at Mandrake Linux 8.1, the distro I'm currently using. It has three "installation" CDs in its collection with Open Source software on them, and three "commercial applications" CDs with proprietary software on them.

Now, say you had some friends who wanted copies of Linux. Staying legal's simple, right? Just copy the "installation" CDs, right?


The fact is, right on the first installation CD, there is Netscape Communicator, a proprietary program. Furthermore, though this is of no concern to Mandrake home market in Europe, there are programs that include patented techniques by MPEG (the mp3 stuff) and by Unisys/IBM (the ncompress package).

So, giving your friends a copy of Mandrake is, well, illegal.

Now, let's look at Red Hat Linux 7.0, which I got in a Linux for Dummies book. Same problems. Netscape, mp3 stuff, and ncompress. That means that the copy I have might not be legal (not that I'm actually going to throw it away just on speculation).

Also, Lycoris, on its download page, states that by downloading the distro you agree not to redistribute it because of copyright issues.

I'm not saying that Mandrake and Red Hat are trying to cheat their way through Open Source, but someone should look into this kind of stuff. Even if the companies being infringed don't go after end-users, companies that publish books like Linux for Dummies could find themselves having to stop putting Linux CDs in their books, perhaps causing a reduction in Linux converts.

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