​Canonical and Free Software Foundation come to open-source licensing terms

For years, Canonical and Ubuntu have been accused of playing fast and loose with Linux-related licenses. Now, Canonical and the FSF have reached a common understanding over Ubuntu licensing.

Canonical, Ubuntu Linux's parent company, has often rubbed other free software groups the wrong way when it came to open-source licenses. On July 15, Canonical, with support from the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC), have changed Ubuntu's licensing terms. The FSF states that Canonical's new intellectual property (IP) policies "unequivocally comply with the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL) and other free software licenses."

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Canonical has been regarded with suspicion by some Linux users since the day it forked from Debian over a decade ago. For example, Canonical used Launchpad as its project hosting software for five years before opening its code under the the Affero GPL in July 2009. This open-source license requires that users can download the source code of a program that they're using as a software-as-a-service (SaaS).

More recently, Canonical's licensing policies became a hot-button topic for two desktop Linux distributions. First, Canonical required Linux Mint, an Ubuntu fork, to sign a license agreement for Mint to continue distributing packages from Ubuntu's repositories. Then, Jonathan Riddell, former head of the Kubuntu (Ubuntu with the KDE desktop) project, argued over this licensing issue for about a year and a half. As a result of this, and a funding issue, the Ubuntu Community Council, with Canonical and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth's support, removed Riddell from any Kubuntu leadership position.

Under Canonical's new IP rights policy, Canonical has added what the FSF calls the trump clause" that prevails in all situations possibly covered by the policy. This reads:

Ubuntu is an aggregate work of many works, each covered by their own license(s). For the purposes of determining what you can do with specific works in Ubuntu, this policy should be read together with the license(s) of the relevant packages. For the avoidance of doubt, where any other license grants rights, this policy does not modify or reduce those rights under those licenses.

Jane Silber, Canonical's CEO in an e-mail added, "In discussions with the FSF and SFC, it was requested that we clarify our policies in regard to rights which apply to files in Ubuntu that are covered by the GPL. Our existing policy does not restrict rights granted for GPL packages, and we have been happy to add a section to our policy to eliminate any doubt in that regard."

The FSF doesn't think this is a perfect solution. "While the FSF acknowledges that the first update emerging from that process solves the most pressing issue with the policy -- its interference with users' rights under the GNU GPL and potentially other copyleft licenses covering individual works within Ubuntu -- the policy remains problematic in ways."

Specifically, "While this change handles the situation for works covered by the GPL, it does not help works covered by lax permissive licenses (such as the X11 license) that do allow such additional restrictions. With that in mind, the FSF has urged Canonical to not only respect the GPL but to also change its terms to remove restrictions on any of the free works it distributes, no matter which license covers that software."

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The FSF would also like to see Canonical pledge that it "only make defensive use of patents and to not initiate litigation against other free software developers."

In addition, the FSF would like to see "The trademark policy should be revised to provide better guidance to downstream distributors so that they can be confident they know exactly where and when trademarks need to be removed in order to comply with the policy."

Canonical and the FSF will continue to work towards Canonical and Ubuntu "to liberally allow use of their trademarks and patents by community projects, and not to interfere with the exercise of rights under any copyleft license covering works within Ubuntu."

Silber, for her part, said, "We will continue to evolve our policies, in consultation with the very diverse groups that make up the open-source community, to reflect best practice and the needs of Canonical and the Ubuntu community."

Not everyone is content with this progress. On his blog, Riddel wrote, "there's still dangers of it [Ubuntu's code] being non-free by restricting non-GPL code and using patents and trademarks. The good news is that doesn't happen, the Ubuntu policy forbids it and there's a team of crack archive admins to make sure everything in the archive can be freely shared, copied and modified. But the worry still exists for people who trust corporate sayings over community policy."

Riddel sees little hope for "much progress happening in future."

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