License Approval

Overview

In order to meet the goal of creating a complete, general purpose operating system exclusively from free and open source software, all software and other content made available by Fedora must be under licenses determined to be allowed in Fedora, with only limited, conditional exceptions.

Fedora applies different license approval criteria for different categories of material: code, documentation, content, fonts, and firmware. The corresponding status names for approved licenses are: allowed, allowed-documentation, allowed-content, allowed-fonts, and allowed-firmware. The strictest license approval standards apply to code, while somewhat relaxed standards apply to the other categories. Licenses that are not allowed for any category are classified as not-allowed.

Fedora’s license approval standards apply to everything that is made available by the Fedora Project, not just installable binary packages in Fedora Linux. For example, everything available at Fedora Pagure, Fedora Source Packages, Fedora Koji, Fedora documentation and Copr repositories is subject to the same licensing rules as Fedora Linux packages.

The Fedora legal documentation includes lists of allowed and not-allowed licenses for Fedora. These lists are generated from the data maintained in the Fedora License Data repository. In case of any discrepancy between the generated Fedora license lists and the data in Fedora License Data, the latter is considered authoritative. For some purposes you may find it more useful to refer to the repository (particularly the TOML files in the data/ directory), rather than the generated lists.

Fedora uses SPDX license expressions to represent allowed and not-allowed licenses in TOML files in the Fedora License Data data/ directory and in the generated Fedora license lists.

If a license that covers something in Fedora, or in a package that has been or is intended to be proposed for inclusion in Fedora Linux, is not listed on the allowed and not-allowed lists, then it must be reviewed.

Whether a license is allowed or not allowed for Fedora is ultimately determined by the Fedora Council. Today, this decision is normally delegated to members of the Red Hat legal team who are specialists in free software / open source licensing and who are very familiar with and committed to supporting Fedora’s mission and foundations.

Allowed Licenses

A license is allowed if Fedora determines that the license is a free software / open source license. At a high level, the inquiry involves determining whether the license provides software freedom, and (equivalently) making sure that the license does not place burdens on users' exercise of its permissions that are inconsistent with evolving community norms and traditions around what is acceptable in a free software / open source license.

As a general rule, all code made available by Fedora must be governed by an allowed license. A license that is in the general allowed category can be used for anything in Fedora, not just code.

Fedora treats spec files as "code". Normally, spec files have no explicit license, and, to the extent they were authored by Fedora contributors and are copyrightable, they are available under the MIT license by virtue of the FPCA.

Licenses Allowed for Documentation

Fedora will designate a license as allowed for documentation (allowed-documentation) if it meets the criteria for allowed licenses and it seems to be specifically designed for documentation and not for code.

In addition, Fedora classifies the following licenses as allowed-documentation (even though they do not meet the above criteria):

  • Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License and its predecessor versions

  • Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Public License and its predecessor versions

  • The GNU Free Documentation License version 2.1 and its predecessor versions

Licenses Allowed for Content

For purposes of Fedora license classification, “content” means any material that is not clearly code, documentation, fonts or firmware. Here are some examples of content:

  • graphic image files

  • audio files

  • nonfunctional data sets

  • AppStream metainfo.xml files

  • standards documents

  • certain files relating to functionality and management of markup languages, including XML schema files and resource resolution files, XSL files, SGML declaration files, and ancillary informal documentation accompanying such files

Fedora will designate a license as allowed for content (allowed-content) if it meets the criteria for allowed licenses with the following exceptions:

  • The license may restrict or prohibit modification

  • The license may say that it does not cover patents or grant any patent licenses

When we say that a standards document is subject to the relaxed license criteria for content, we are referring to the copyright-oriented license for the document itself, not licenses covering implementation of the technology specified by the document.
Man pages are considered documentation, not content, even when they are derived from standards documents.
CC0-1.0, which has a clause that says that it does not license or otherwise "affect" patent rights, is no longer allowed, but it continues to be allowed-content.

Fedora’s decision to treat a particular category of material as "content" generally reflects a pragmatic judgment. The main focus for Fedora is free software; in some cases, for free software to be fully useful, it must be accompanied by non-software items that unfortunately are covered by non-libre terms. Fedora may be more likely to conclude that a given category of material is "content" if such material is (as a general matter) likely of doubtful or "thin" copyrightability.

Licenses Allowed for Fonts

Fedora may designate a license as allowed for fonts (allowed-fonts) if it meets the criteria for allowed licenses with the following exception:

  • The license may contain a nominal prohibition on resale or distribution in isolation

A good example of what we mean by a "nominal prohibition on resale or distribution in isolation" is found in the following condition in the SIL Open Font License 1.1:

Neither the Font Software nor any of its individual components, in Original or Modified Versions, may be sold by itself.

This kind of prohibition would not be acceptable in a license applicable to code (see, for example, the Sun RPC license).

The prohibition in the SIL OFL is "nominal" because in FOSS legal culture it has occasionally been cleverly asserted that one can get around this kind of provision by bundling a trivial 'Hello world' program with the fonts (and there is actually some reason to believe the authors of the SIL OFL intended this). If we were to encounter a license that had such a provision but we believed a 'Hello world' solution was not even arguably viable, we might not consider the license allowable for fonts.

Licenses Allowed for Firmware

Some applications, drivers, and hardware require binary firmware images to boot Fedora Linux or function properly. Fedora permits inclusion of these files as long as they meet the following license and technical requirements:

License requirements for firmware

Fedora may designate a license as allowed for firmware (allowed-firmware) if it meets the criteria for allowed licenses with the following exceptions:

  • The license may prohibit modification, reverse engineering, disassembly or decompilation.

  • The license may require that the firmware be used only in conjunction with specified hardware.

  • The license may require that the firmware be redistributed only as incorporated in the redistributor’s product (or as a maintenance update for existing end users of the redistributor’s product). This may be limited further to those products of the redistributor that support or contain the hardware associated with the licensed firmware.

  • The license may require a redistributor to pass on or impose conditions on users that are no more restrictive than those authorized by Fedora itself with respect to firmware licenses.

Technical firmware requirements

While these technical requirements for firmware have nothing to do with licensing, they are included here for convenience.

  • The files must be non-executable within the Fedora Linux context (note: this means that the files cannot run on their own, not that they are just chmod -x)

  • The files must not be libraries, within the Fedora Linux context

  • The files must be standalone, not embedded in executable or library code (within the Fedora Linux context)

  • The files must be necessary for the functionality of open source code being included in Fedora Linux or to enable Fedora Linux to boot on a specific device, where no other reliable and supported mechanisms exist

'Not allowed' Licenses

Any license that does not meet the criteria above for allowed licenses (including allowed for a specific category) will be classified as not-allowed.

In extremely rare cases we may have some reason to designate a license as not-allowed even though it might meet the formal criteria for the relevant category. An example is LicenseRef-wrk, which represents a license based on the Apache License 2.0 and named "Modified Apache License 2.0", presumably without permission from the Apache Software Foundation, which has said that derivatives of the Apache License cannot have "Apache" in their name.

usage exceptions

For some not-allowed licenses, or licenses allowed only for a specific category, an exception is recorded in the Fedora License Data TOML file for the license, as the value of the usage key (and displayed in the "Usage" column of the not-allowed list). The exception will indicate that Fedora tolerates the license under limited conditions (for example, for a specific package, or for a defined time period).

For example, here is the usage exception for OPUBL-1.0:

Allowed for documentation if the copyright holder does not exercise any of the “LICENSE OPTIONS” listed in Section VI
OPUBL-1.0 represents the Open Publication License version 1.0, which was classified as "good" for documentation under the Callaway system provided no "options" are exercised. For administrative convenience we now classify it as not-allowed with the usage exception noted above.

Changes in License Status

Fedora aims for stability in its license classifications, but its treatment of a particular license or license type may change as community standards and expectations around acceptable licensing evolve or as new issues and concerns come to light. In rare cases, an allowed license may be reclassified as not-allowed, or an allowed license may be reclassified as allowed only for a specific category of material, as when CC0-1.0 was reclassified from allowed to allowed-content. When this sort of reclassification is done, we will try to minimize disruption, including by defining appropriate usage exceptions.

Background to Fedora licensing policy

Over several decades, norms concerning acceptable standards for software (and other content) licensing developed out of communities associated with free software and open source projects. Fedora builds upon and contributes to the development of this community tradition. Most of the philosophical and practical groundwork for Fedora’s policies on licensing was developed over many years by Tom 'spot' Callaway, often working in collaboration with members of Red Hat’s legal team.

The two most influential efforts to distill FOSS licensing norms are the Free Software Foundation’s maintenance and interpretation of the Free Software Definition, and the Open Source Initiative’s maintenance and interpretation of the Open Source Definition. For much of its earlier history, Fedora tended to regard the FSF’s interpretation as highly authoritative, while viewing the OSI’s license review decisions with greater skepticism. However, even at the high point of that period of skepticism, Fedora treated the OSD and OSI decisions as one source of persuasive authority. Fedora has also sometimes taken into account the decisions of other major community Linux distributions and other important community efforts to define and apply software freedom-related legal norms. Fedora’s license approval decisions are both principled and pragmatic.

Out of necessity, Fedora has passed judgment on hundreds of licenses never considered by the FSF or the OSI. In a small number of cases, Fedora has disagreed with decisions of the FSF and OSI regarding whether particular licenses are FOSS. Over time, Fedora has built up an informal body of interpretation and policymaking regarding free/open licensing which has itself influenced the larger FOSS community outside of Fedora.