Red Hat funds open-source think tank

Red Hat, a leading seller of the Linux operating system, forms a new organization to carry the cooperative ethos of open-source programming to the larger world of research.

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Red Hat, a leading seller of the Linux operating system, has formed a new organization to carry the cooperative ethos of open-source programming to a much larger audience.

Red Hat cofounder Marc Ewing will be director of the new nonprofit organization, called the Red Hat Center for Open Source (RHCOS), the company said. The center supports activities "intended to advance the social principles of open source for the greater good for the general public," Red Hat said.

"What we want to be able to do is facilitate thinking and discussion about the principles of open source and how they apply in communities other than the software development community--law, medicine, business, governance, scientific research, education," Ewing said in an interview with CNET News.com

Red Hat and its three largest shareholders--Ewing, chief executive Bob Young, and investor Frank Batten--together donated $8 million to the foundation, Ewing said.

In the open-source programming method, the original programming instructions of a software package are freely shared, modified, and distributed, rather than kept secret as in the case of proprietary software. The result is that when programmers are interested in a project, software can be developed cooperatively by anyone who wants to participate.

Open-source programming has become a higher-profile concept with the success of Linux, Apache, and other open-source software common on the Internet. Several companies are trying to capitalize on the movement.

Red Hat is generally perceived as one of the strongest open-source advocates, funding several efforts and sharing the results of its programming projects. That reputation was bolstered by a very successful initial public offering in August.

While the center might sound like a philanthropic idea, Red Hat also has its own interests at heart. The company wants to build the credibility and awareness of open-source programming by showing similarities to more familiar subjects, Ewing said.

"We're doing it for a mix of reasons," he said. "Red Hat's success is going to lie in the open-source model and the acceptance of it," he said.

One way Red Hat tries to increase the comprehension of open-source programming is to draw the parallel with the practice of law. "In law, you've got to go argue a case. You make a great argument, and you win. But you don't own that argument," Ewing said. "It gets published in books. If a good argument is made, another lawyer can take it, change it a little bit."

"It's a cooperatively developed inventory of legal strategies," he said.

The company could fund grants for projects such as a law student researching open-source licensing issues or a business school examining open-source business model, he said. Other projects could include funding for specific software development projects, establishing an online journal or conference dedicated to open-source issues beyond just programming, or setting up a clearinghouse of research on the subject, he said.

The effort won't compete with other open-source efforts such as those from Linux International, the Free Software Foundation, or the Open Source Institute, because those groups are focused primarily on just software issues, he said.

The center, likely to be located near Red Hat's North Carolina headquarters, will consist of about three or four people initially, Ewing said.

Much research today is funded by companies who won't share the results of the effort, Young said in a statement. "The time is right to introduce an approach that will seed new advances and foster innovation for everyone's benefit."

Besides Young and Ewing, other board members of the center will be Sim Sitkin, an associate professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University; Lawrence Lessig, a professor at the Harvard Law School; John Gilmore, a designer of the first Sun Microsystems computer and a cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and John Seely Brown, chief scientist of Xerox and director of the company's Palo Alto Research Center.

The open-source software movement created a model of global cooperation, Ewing said in a statement. "The implications of this model when applied outside software development are enormous."