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Open Source Defies Conflicts of Interest: Red Hat Tells All

By Jack M. Germain LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Oct 22, 2020 1:18 PM PT
Red Hat open-source participation guidelines

Red Hat, a major provider of open source solutions, has never had a comprehensive document guiding associate participation in open source projects, until now.

In an ongoing oversight, the company had only a few related processes written down. Much of how the company and its workers interacted with open source contribution was known only in long-standing, widely understood, but undocumented company practice.

Perhaps under the influence of its recent purchase by IBM, Red Hat recently announced the external publication of its open-source participation guidelines. The company released the guidelines on GitHub under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Red Hat officials hope its guidelines will spur other organizations to consider how they approach open source, either by adopting these or similar guidelines for the benefit of their own employees.

Overall, Red Hat's announcement seems like a commonplace approach to formalizing how/when/why employees participate in open source projects, according to Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"Frankly, I am surprised that the company had not done so before this since it is the kind of thing that would be addressed in a formal code of conduct for employees. It's entirely possible that the decision to move ahead is related to IBM's acquisition of Red Hat," King told LinuxInsider.

The two companies announced that acquisition in late 2018. Red Hat's manager for the open-source program office, Brian Profitt, noted in his recent blog about the new open-source guidelines that the effort began early in 2019.

Out in the Open

When your whole business revolves around open source, community participation, and upstream-first development, it is a reasonable assumption that you are going to get asked about how all of that works, wrote Profitt.

Red Hat has not been secretive about its open-source processes. Rather, various people within the company have posted guides, FAQs, and white papers. Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst did TED talks and wrote a book on the topic.

Still, Red Hat gets frequent questions from individuals and organizations about how Red Hat makes open source work. Now an official compilation of Red Hat's guidelines is available for all to see.

In a nutshell, all company associates can contribute to any open source project they want. They can even do so on the company's time, or on their own time.

Of course, anything done on Red Hat's time must be related to their job. But the specific project does not matter.

The only requirement for Red Hat workers contributing to open source projects is to follow whatever governance and contribution guidelines existed for that project, according to Profitt.

In early 2019, Red Hat started working with the company's legal team to write the first draft. By August of last year, the company published the first edition internally.

Now Red Hat has all the details spelled out and published for public access for the sake of clarity and uniformity. The company used The Open Decision Framework to compile its official working guidelines for open source.

Something Unusual

It is very common for open source companies to have in place a guiding document for participating in projects, according to Ruth Suehle, director of community outreach in Red Hat's Open Source Program Office.

"I do not think it is terribly uncommon in the software industry, particularly in companies where there are a lot of open source contributors. They often are not published, though, and they tend to focus on what the restrictions are. For example, it seems to be common to require manager approval before contributing to a project," she told LinuxInsider.

That point about restrictions is a factor that may distinguish Red Hat from what other open-source companies have in place. That gave Red Hat an interesting challenge in writings its guidelines.

"We do not have those sorts of restrictions, and we did not want to try to exhaustively document all the possible restrictions we do not have either," Suehle said.

The formal document is based on the company's long-standing assertion that all of its workers are free to participate in projects. In fact, the entire document could be summarized with the first 12 words of section 3: "Red Hat associates are highly encouraged to participate in open source projects," she noted.

"We do not create any hurdles between associates and open source projects," Suehle added.

Only two parts of the guidelines state any sort of limit on company associates, she clarified. The first is that projects use an Open Source Initiative-approved license. The second is that if an associate is asked to sign a third-party contributor agreement, they should check with Red Hat's legal team.

No Conflict of Interest

The notion of conflict of interest as an impediment to more active open-source participation across the board in enterprise settings is an idea that goes against the open-source model. Red Hat does not see a conflict of interest with its workers participating in other companies' open source projects.

Red Hat's mission statement is to be the catalyst in communities of customers, contributors, and partners creating better technology the open source way. The company believes that openly sharing innovation and ideas benefits all of the parties involved with a project, said Suehle.

Red Hat lists the three open source communities -- customers, contributors, and partners -- separately in the mission statement, they have significant overlap. They also sometimes have conflicting interests or missions, she agreed.

"But more importantly, they are groups that regularly come together within open source projects to collaborate. While some enterprises see the conflicts as a barrier, a reason not to participate, we see that the strength we have building things together is greater," explained Suehle.

The open-source way involves building on that which came before -- standing on the shoulders of giants. That makes a key part of why Red Hat does things in the open. It also is why the company tells its associates that it is okay to contribute to any free or open-source project, she said.

Gospel According to Red Hat

Red Hat's guideline document is deliberately generic enough to be a general guide for other companies to adopt, according to Suehle. They are a direct result of Red Hat's culture.

But openly encouraging participation in open source projects benefits all involved. Red Hat hopes other companies adopt similar policies.

"That is a large part of why we decided to share something originally written for our associates publicly on Github," said Suehle.

The guidelines document is available for download here.


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.


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