[personal profile] mjg59
I've previously written about Canonical's obnoxious IP policy and how Mark Shuttleworth admits it's deliberately vague. After spending some time discussing specific examples with Canonical, I've been explicitly told that while Canonical will gladly give me a cost-free trademark license permitting me to redistribute unmodified Ubuntu binaries, they will not tell me what Any redistribution of modified versions of Ubuntu must be approved, certified or provided by Canonical if you are going to associate it with the Trademarks. Otherwise you must remove and replace the Trademarks and will need to recompile the source code to create your own binaries actually means.

Why does this matter? The free software definition requires that you be able to redistribute software to other people in either unmodified or modified form without needing to ask for permission first. This makes it clear that Ubuntu itself isn't free software - distributing the individual binary packages without permission is forbidden, even if they wouldn't contain any infringing trademarks[1]. This is obnoxious, but not inherently toxic. The source packages for Ubuntu could still be free software, making it fairly straightforward to build a free software equivalent.

Unfortunately, while true in theory, this isn't true in practice. The issue here is the apparently simple phrase you must remove and replace the Trademarks and will need to recompile the source code. "Trademarks" is defined later as being the words "Ubuntu", "Kubuntu", "Juju", "Landscape", "Edubuntu" and "Xubuntu" in either textual or logo form. The naive interpretation of this is that you have to remove trademarks where they'd be infringing - for instance, shipping the Ubuntu bootsplash as part of a modified product would almost certainly be clear trademark infringement, so you shouldn't do that. But that's not what the policy actually says. It insists that all trademarks be removed, whether they would embody an infringement or not. If a README says "To build this software under Ubuntu, install the following packages", a literal reading of Canonical's policy would require you to remove or replace the word "Ubuntu" even though failing to do so wouldn't be a trademark infringement. If an @ubuntu.com email address is present in a changelog, you'd have to change it. You wouldn't be able to ship the juju-core package without renaming it and the application within. If this is what the policy means, it's so impractical to be able to rebuild Ubuntu that it's not free software in any meaningful way.

This seems like a pretty ludicrous interpretation, but it's one that Canonical refuse to explicitly rule out. Compare this to Red Hat's requirements around Fedora - if you replace the fedora-logos, fedora-release and fedora-release-notes packages with your own content, you're good. A policy like this satisfies the concerns that Dustin raised over people misrepresenting their products, but still makes it easy for users to distribute modified code to other users. There's nothing whatsoever stopping Canonical from adopting a similarly unambiguous policy.

Mark has repeatedly asserted that attempts to raise this issue are mere FUD, but he won't answer you if you ask him direct questions about this policy and will insist that it's necessary to protect Ubuntu's brand. The reality is that if Debian had had an identical policy in 2004, Ubuntu wouldn't exist. The effort required to strip all Debian trademarks from the source packages would have been immense[2], and this would have had to be repeated for every release. While this policy is in place, nobody's going to be able to take Ubuntu and build something better. It's grotesquely hypocritical, especially when the Ubuntu website still talks about their belief that people should be able to distribute modifications without licensing fees.

All that's required for Canonical to deal with this problem is to follow Fedora's lead and isolate their trademarks in a small set of packages, then tell users that those packages must be replaced if distributing a modified version of Ubuntu. If they're serious about this being a branding issue, they'll do it. And if I'm right that the policy is deliberately obfuscated so Canonical can encourage people to buy licenses, they won't. It's easy for them to prove me wrong, and I'll be delighted if they do. Let's see what happens.

[1] The policy is quite clear on this. If you want to distribute something other than an unmodified Ubuntu image, you have two choices:
  1. Gain approval or certification from Canonical
  2. Remove all trademarks and recompile the source code
Note that option 2 requires you to rebuild even if there are no trademarks to remove.

[2] Especially when every source package contains a directory called "debian"…

Re: Comparing to Fedora / Comparing to Red Hat

Date: 2015-11-20 03:50 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I don't understand why you think comparing Fedora to Ubuntu is any less of an apples-to-apples comparison. What makes Ubuntu so different that it can't take Fedora's approach?

Re: Comparing to Fedora / Comparing to Red Hat

Date: 2015-11-20 11:18 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Ubuntu is a commercial product in addition to free software project. It needs to have brand recognition and protection, vague marketing and lawyer nonsense often despised by engineers in order to succeed and be a trustworthy commercial partner to normal companies in the world. Fedora is just a free software project, a free gift from Red Hat. It does not have the burden of needing to satisfy paying customers and make promises.

It may be wise from Red Hat to have their free software project separate from their billion dollar commercial activity, but the reason for that should not be "anti-commercialism" that is somewhat popular in free software community. There's enough confusion that "free" means gratis anyway, and it's not helped by people that hate money making and/or don't understand it. Commercial work always comes with some restrictions related to how the money is made, and some of it may be aimed to make the commercial entity stronger in order to survive, but the free software is always free software and can be forked and built upon elsewhere if wanted.

I won't comment on the actual blog post, since it's legal stuff and I'm not interested in that as long as license is clear. Trademark protections, CLA:s are all ok, and often a very good thing for commercial free software products.

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Matthew Garrett

About Matthew

Power management, mobile and firmware developer on Linux. Security developer at Google. Ex-biologist. @mjg59 on Twitter. Content here should not be interpreted as the opinion of my employer.

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