Ouster of Kubuntu founder leaves its future in doubt

linux penguins arguing

A disagreement between the founder of Kubuntu and the Ubuntu Community Council has roiled the Linux community and left the project rudderless, as Jonathan Riddell left Kubuntu’s governing body late last month.

A month before, Riddell was forced out of his post as the de facto head of the governance committee of Kubuntu, the Linux distribution he helped to found in 2005. Kubuntu is an Ubuntu-based desktop operating system that uses the well-regarded KDE Plasma desktop environment.

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The organization that demanded – and got – his resignation is the Ubuntu Community Council, the main non-technical governing body for the mega-distro. The UCC’s members are nominated by Canonical head Mark Shuttleworth and approved by Ubuntu’s members, and Shuttleworth himself retains a permanent seat.

The expulsion of Riddell raised eyebrows at the time, for three main reasons. The first is that the reason given for the move wasn’t well-substantiated – indeed, Ubuntu community manager Michael Hall declined to offer specifics when asked, citing Riddell’s privacy, and a public message to the Kubuntu project’s leadership cited his “aggressive” and “confrontational” behavior but didn’t offer any examples.

“[Riddell] is a valuable member of our community who we think made some bad choices, but we don’t want to make a big deal of this – we don’t want to put up big giant posters highlighting this,” he told Network World.

But Riddell himself was more forthright, providing a link to the UCC’s mailing list message announcing his ouster and saying that he stood by everything he said.

“Amazingly[,] they thought it would be a sane thing to do to put this on Ubuntu's news site …, this attempt to make me look bad also made the CC and the whole Ubuntu project look even worse so they took it down,” Riddell said in an email.

Kubuntu council member Scott Kitterman

The second reason is the abrupt and unprecedented nature of the decision – the UCC has never actually called for the head of a “flavor” distro like Kubuntu to step down before, and the decision to do so was presented to Kubuntu’s leadership as a settled matter, not open for debate.

This didn’t go down well with the Kubuntu council. One member, Scott Kitterman, published an extensive collection of correspondence between the two councils, which show the Kubuntu team clearly dismayed by the decision.

“I think the CC is completely beyond the pale in making this request,” he emailed Hall. “Even if every single allegation is true (and I still didn’t find the Canonical employee that can’t work with Jonathan despite continuing to try), both the action and the way it was arrived at are wrong.”

Finally, and most critically, the fact that Riddell had been trying to raise questions about Ubuntu’s licensing behavior and its handling of nearly $50,000 in donations from users make it difficult to avoid at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.

First, he said, a clause in Ubuntu’s intellectual property policy incorrectly limits the rights of those, like Kubuntu, who create and distribute a modified version of Ubuntu, in violation of basic open-source principles. It doesn’t seem to have caused many problems for those distributors in practice – many Ubuntu-based distros, including rival Mint, co-exist peacefully with the parent distro – but the language remains in the policy.

Another clause reads “this does not affect your rights under any open source license applicable to any of the components of Ubuntu.” It’s unclear whether that language has been added since the dispute, but Canonical has stated that it is working with the non-profit Software Freedom Law Center on the issue. (The SFLC would not comment on the ongoing discussions.)

Riddell’s other issue has to do with what happened with the $48,000 donated by Ubuntu users via a download page on Canonical’s site – the page contains several sliders that allow donors to offer monetary support to various areas of Ubuntu development. An early version, which went online in October 2012, had a slider labeled “better support for flavors,” like Kubuntu.

Riddell says the page may have deceived donors into believing that money donated via that slider would be earmarked for development teams like Kubuntu’s directly, rather than for its actual destination – the Canonical teams responsible for making sure Ubuntu works well with the flavors. Ubuntu has since changed the page to make it less ambiguous, but has only partially accounted for the money, tracking when it came in but not where it went.

Hall and the rest of the UCC have been consistent in their statements that Riddell’s ouster had nothing to do with the fact that he raised the issues – and it’s worth pointing out that one of Riddell’s own messages to Shuttleworth, publicized by Kitterman’s blog post, indicates that Riddell has since been satisfied that Canonical has addressed both issues. But what public relations professionals might call “the optics” remain unpleasant for the UCC.

Morale at Kubuntu, in the wake of Riddell’s removal and subsequent resignation from all governance roles at the project, is low, he said. The team plans to publish version 15.10 in October, but could decide to stop work on the project after that.

“[T]here’s little fun in working in a project where the leadership of that project don’t want to work with you,” he told Network World.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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