Canonical's Ubuntu IP policy is garbage
(In order to avoid any ambiguity here, this is a personal opinion. The Free Software Foundation's opinion on this matter is here)
Canonical have a legal policy surrounding reuse of Intellectual Property they own in Ubuntu, and you can find it here. It's recently been modified to handle concerns raised by various people including the Free Software Foundation, who have some further opinions on the matter here. The net outcome is that Canonical made it explicit that if the license a piece of software is under explicitly says you can do something, you can do that even if the Ubuntu IP policy would otherwise forbid it.
Unfortunately, "Canonical have made it explicit that they're not attempting to violate the GPL" is about the nicest thing you can say about this. The most troubling statement is
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.. The apparent aim here is to avoid situations where people take Ubuntu, modify it and continue to pass it off as Ubuntu. But it reaches far further than that. Cases where this may apply include (but are not limited to):
- Anyone producing a device that runs an operating system based on Ubuntu, even if it's entirely invisible to the user (eg, an embedded ARM device using Ubuntu as its base OS)
- Anyone producing containers based on Ubuntu
- Anyone producing cloud images (such as AMIs) based on Ubuntu
In each of these cases, a strict reading of the policy indicates that you are distributing a modified version of Ubuntu and therefore must either get it approved by Canonical or remove the trademarks and rebuild everything
. The strange thing is that this doesn't limit itself to rebuilding packages that include Canonical's trademarks - there's a requirement that you rebuild all
Now obviously this is good engineering practice in a whole bunch of ways, but it's a huge pain in the ass. And to make things worse, Canonical won't clarify what they consider to be use of their trademarks. Many Ubuntu packages rebuilt from Debian include the word "ubuntu" in their version string. Many Ubuntu packages will contain the word "ubuntu" in maintainer email addresses. Many Ubuntu packages include references to Ubuntu (for instance, documentation might say "This configuration file is located under /etc/default in Debian and Ubuntu"). And many Ubuntu packages will include the compiler version string, which will include the word "ubuntu". Realistically, there's no risk of confusion by using the trademarks in this way, and as a consequence there would be no infringement under trademark law. But Canonical aren't using trademark law here. Canonical assert that they hold copyright over binaries that they have built form source, and require that for you to have permission to redistribute these binaries under copyright law
you must remove the trademarks. This means that it doesn't matter whether your use of the trademarks would be infringing or not - you're required to remove them, because fuck you that's why.
This is a huge overreach. It's hostile to free software, in that it makes it significantly more difficult to produce derivative works of Ubuntu and doesn't benefit the community in the process. It's hostile to our understanding of IP law, in that it claims that the mechanical process of turning source code into binaries creates an independently copyrightable work. And in some cases it may make it impossible to create derivative works that interoperate with Ubuntu due to applications making assumptions about the presence of strings.
It'd be easy write this off as an over the top misinterpretation of the policy if it hadn't been confirmed by the Ubuntu Community Manager that any binaries shipped by Ubuntu under licenses that don't grant an explicit right to redistribute the binaries can't be redistributed without permission or rebuilding
. When I asked for clarification from Canonical over a year ago, I got no response. Perhaps Canonical don't want to force you to remove every single use of the word Ubuntu from derivative works, but their policy is written such that the natural reading is that they do
, and they've refused every single opportunity they've been given to clarify the point.
So, we're left with a policy that makes it hugely impractical to redistribute modified versions of Ubuntu unless Canonical approve of it. That's not freedom, and it's certainly not Ubuntu
. If Canonical are serious about participating in the free software community then they need to demonstrate their willingness to continue improving this policy to bring it closer to our goals. Failure to do so will give a strong indication of their priorities.
 While I'm a member of the FSF's board of directors, I'm not involved in the majority of the FSF's day to day activities and was not part of this process
 Nebula's OS was a mixture of binary packages we pulled straight from Ubuntu and packages we rebuilt, so we were obviously pretty interested in what the answer was
Syndicated 2015-07-15 19:20:38 from Matthew Garrett