Following a message from Michael Tiemann, Red Hat's vice president of open source affairs, to the Fedora Advisory Board mailing list in April 2006, board member Rahul Sundaram and Fedora developer Tom Callaway initiated a licensing audit of Fedora. After a strenuous scanning process, several changes were made to the Core repository to make Fedora compliant with its own packaging guidelines. "What we did before Fedora Core 6," says Sundaram, "is go through the entire Fedora Core packages to make sure we are compliant with our own guidelines, since many of these packages were inherited from Red Hat Linux during the project launch a few years back."
The next task in their queue is cross-checking the Fedora's Extras repository, which will be merged with the Core repository before the upcoming release. The Fedora Extras packages already go through a peer review process which includes a license check before a package is allowed into the repository.
Currently, the Fedora packaging guidelines require packages to be compliant with the Free Software and Open Source definitions and covered by either the OSI-approved licenses, GPL-compatible Free Software licenses, or GPL-incompatible Free Software licenses. If a proprietary package that fails to comply with those definitions is identified in the auditing process, Fedora works with the package maintainers and upstream projects to see if they can change the licenses. "In many cases," says Sundaram, "we have successfully done that. In some instances where the license change was impossible, we had to drop the packages. We strive to provide Free Software alternatives wherever possible when we have to drop packages."
Change in the guidelines?
In his email message last year, Tiemann asked what board members thought "about changing the tilt of Fedora from open source to free software." Sundaram says that though their first priority is to complete the review of the Extras repository, a change in the guideline is possible. "It is likely that we may change the guidelines to allow only Free Software (as defined by Free Software Foundation) instead of Free and Open Source software, as defined within the guidelines now. Any further licensing changes would be discussed and implemented publicly with feedback from the community members."
Sundaram asserts that the developers of Fedora have always believed in having an entirely free software distribution that is unencumbered by restrictive software patents. He says that eradicating proprietary software from a distribution has more benefits than drawbacks. "Users can be confident that they are using a distribution where all the software provides them with well-known rights. They can easily customize it to fit their needs. We can fix any issues and ensure that all the packages are portable to the architectures we support, since we have all the code available under appropriate licenses. Derivatives have the freedom to modify the distribution as per their requirements. We have capability to play all the open codecs within Fedora. Users only have to fetch additional codecs if they want to view proprietary multimedia content."
On the other hand, he adds that Fedora also believes in users' choice. "If a particular user would want to install proprietary components, they are free to do so even if we don't recommend doing this. For example, standardization of Free Software using a single multimedia framework like GStreamer makes it easier for users to install any additional multimedia codecs easily and having them immediately accessible and functional across all applications. In Fedora 7, we are planning to go further by providing a feature called the Codec Buddy, which kicks in when a user attempts to use content which requires additional codecs and guides them to fetch the codecs easily instead of cryptic error messages."
Fedora remains one of the most popular Linux distributions. Respecting freedom without much inconvenience to desktop users seems like a nice idea. How the community will react to the changes remains to be seen.