Skip Links

Making sense of the Ubuntu licensing fiasco

The recent licensing announcement for Ubuntu has caused some confusion.

By Bryan Lunduke on Tue, 02/18/14 - 10:13am.

I am not a lawyer. And, if I were a lawyer, I would be a terrible one. So if I've gotten any of the following incorrect please, in the name of all that is wonderful in this world of ours, let me know in the comments below. With that out of the way, let's continue.

This week, the Ubuntu Community Council, made an official statement regarding Linux Mint (which is based on Ubuntu), and Canonical's request that Linux Mint sign a license agreement in order for Mint to be allowed to continue distributing packages from the Ubuntu repositories. (It should be noted that such packages make up the vast majority of all packages for Linux Mint, so this is not a minor development.)

Here are the critical (in my opinion) portions of that statement:

"At this time, we are in agreement that one of the keys to Ubuntu’s success is in providing a well-designed, reliable and enjoyable experience to all of our users […] To that end it is critical that when people see “Ubuntu,” it adequately represents the software that we all build and stand behind. […] Trademarks and Copyrights are the legal tools provided to us for safeguarding those reputations, and it’s part of Canonical’s mandate within the Ubuntu project to use those tools appropriately."

They continue:

"We believe there is no ill will against Linux Mint, from either the Ubuntu community or Canonical and that Canonical does not intend to prevent them from continuing their work, and that this license is to help ensure that. What Linux Mint does is appreciated, and we want to see them succeed."

Honestly, to me, this seems pretty straight-forward. So I took a look at the Intellectual Property Rights Policy that Canonical created this last year to get a better sense of how this would actually impact someone like the Linux Mint folks. And I found this tidbit:

"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. This does not affect your rights under any open source licence applicable to any of the components of Ubuntu. If you need us to approve, certify or provide modified versions for redistribution you will require a licence agreement from Canonical, for which you may be required to pay."

To me, this says that if I have my own Linux distribution based (at least in part) on Ubuntu, I either:

A) Need to re-compile all binaries and packages or

B) Pay an unknown licensing fee to Canonical for use of the packages.

Again, I'm not terribly upset about this. Code can be compiled and packages can be assembled. But the vagueness is a bit disconcerting. What are the licensing costs? Why are they not listed? That... feels weird.

Then I came across this post by Jonathan Riddell, head of the Kubuntu project, which states the following:

"So let me say clearly, no licence is needed to make a derivative distribution of Kubuntu. All you need to do is remove obvious uses of the Kubuntu trademark. Any suggestion that somehow compiling the packages causes Canonical to own extra copyrights is nonsense. Any suggestion that there are unspecified trademarks that need a licence is untrue. Any suggestion there is compilation copyright is irrelevant in most countries and untrue for derivatives almost by definition. Any suggestion that the version number needs a trademark licence is just clutching at straws."

Which, I have to say, also makes a great deal of sense. If I'm reading that correctly, he's basically saying that what Canonical is asking for is silly, bordering on "nonsense" and "clutching at straws."

Personally? I like to give the benefit of the doubt to everyone here. Every person and organization that I've mentioned in this article has done amazing work and, because of that work, has advanced desktop Linux forward, significantly, over the last few years. The optimist in me is hoping that this gets resolved quickly, in a way that helps everyone.

Here's the "Bryan Lunduke Is Not a Lawyer But Thinks Everyone Should Do This" solution:

Canonical: Clarify some of the vague bits of the IP Rights Policy (such as costs) and remove the bit that requires re-compiling everything for derivative distros. That's a tad silly, eh? I think you guys meant well when you drafted this...but that part seems to have gone a bit far. That will go a long way toward showing the community (and downstream projects) how easy you are to work with.

Everyone Else: Cut Canonical a little slack. Raise these concerns, but give Canonical some time to address them. Legal issues can take time for lawyers to resolve (even just minor word changes) and companies have a tendency to move about as fast as a tree sloth sometimes. That's just how it is. If Canonical won't come up with a resolution that makes you happy, after a reasonable amount of time, go on the social network of your choice and find a way to blame Jono Bacon.

Just be sure to use the hashtag "#BryanSaysJonoDidIt."