Is Canonical going open core? Does it matter?

Bradley Kuhn argues against Canonical's copyright assignment

Bradley Kuhn, board member for the Free Software Foundation and executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy is claiming that Canonical is heading towards an "open core" strategy with its copyright assignment policy. Problem is, Kuhn is reaching a bit with his conclusions, and making a bit more of the situation than it may warrant.

As 451 Group's Matthew Aslett points out, Kuhn doesn't manage to prove that Mark Shuttleworth or anyone else at Canonical have a plan to pursue an "open core" business strategy with Ubuntu or any of the other component bits around Ubuntu like Launchpad, Ubuntu One, etc. Kuhn does make a solid case that Canonical hasn't promised it won't pursue an open core or dual-licensing strategy, but that doesn't mean that they will.

The bigger question is how much this matters. Kuhn questions Canonical's proprietary services (like Ubuntu One) and asks "should we abandon copyleft's assurances of fair treatment to all, and hand over full proprietarization powers on GPL'd software to for-profit companies, merely so they can employ a few FLOSS developers to work primarily on non-upstream projects?"

Let's take those one at a time. Canonical has been stepping up the integration of Ubuntu One into Ubuntu, and it seems that the company is hoping to make a profit off Ubuntu One. This tends to offend the sensibilities of the more hardcore free software advocates, but the company is filling some gaps that other vendors have failed to address. Users, at least some, tend to like services like iTunes (not the iTunes app, but the store, I think most agree that iTunes itself is a horrible application) and MobileMe. The ones who don't care for them can ignore them, or run another distribution altogether — here's where Canonical's lack of coordination with upstream is a bonus: They're not forcing anything related to Ubuntu One upstream to GNOME, Rhythmbox, or any other project.

And the GPL'ed software in question consists primarily of projects that have been started by Canonical itself, like Launchpad, Upstart, and Apport. The other distros have already started moving away from Upstart, and most of the other components are fairly specific to the Ubuntu ecosystem. That's not to say that it's a good thing that Canonical might be going open core — I'm just not sure it's worth sounding the alarm bells over. We're not talking about a company that can take significant pieces of common infrastructure out of the picture, like Sun. Most of Canonical's software is primarily relevant in the context of Ubuntu. (Which is a topic for another post, and a more valid area to criticize the company in my opinion.)

I like Kuhn, and I admire what he's doing with the Conservancy. But think that he's a bit too eager to paint Canonical's motives as suspect here and cry foul.


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