The Controversy Behind Canonical's Intellectual Property Policy

In the world of FOSS, a small change to a license can be a big deal. For users of proprietary software, changes in the EULA are hardly even registered. Those users click "Ok" and forget about it in the blink of an eye. They have accepted that they are severely limited as far as their rights to alter or redistribute the software is concerned.

But for users of free software, such as Linux or any of the hundreds of packages that make up a modern operating system, a license change has the potential to change their rights dramatically. So, these events are usually the cause of controversy.

Canonical recently has made a change to its intellectual property policy following two years of discussion with the Free Software Foundation (FSF). The changes relate to limitations that Canonical places on the distribution of modified versions of Ubuntu. Canonical's new IP policy is less restrictive than before, but the FSF still is not satisfied that the changes are adequate.

The issue at stake is the right of users to distribute altered versions of Ubuntu. The IP policy allows users to alter Ubuntu in any way for personal or internal use. Users also are allowed to distribute unaltered Ubuntu freely. But, the policy prevents developers from distributing altered versions of Ubuntu without jumping through some hoops first.

Canonical wants developers either to submit their revisions for review (which may incur a fee) or remove all references to Canonical trademarks and proprietary software and recompile the Ubuntu archive without those trademarks. Specifically, this means there should be no reference to any of these words:

  • Ubuntu
  • Edubuntu
  • Kubuntu
  • Xubuntu
  • Juju
  • Landscape

This restriction also includes any logos, design work or the "look and feel" of Ubuntu.

Further, distributors are not allowed to use any word ending with "buntu" with these altered versions.

Canonical's stated intention has been to protect its trademarks and reputation. For instance, if an altered version of Ubuntu contained a serious bug or security flaw introduced by a developer who altered Ubuntu, Canonical feels this would reflect poorly on the company.

However, Ubuntu is not a single piece of software produced by Canonical. It's a large ecosystem that consists of thousands of packages, the vast majority of which are free software distributed under licenses like the GPL.

The GPL specifically forbids companies such as Canonical from adding restrictions to code that is covered under the GPL. This has led to complaints from within the Ubuntu community, which is how the Free Software Foundation became involved.

The changes to Canonical's IP policy clarifies that where packages in Ubuntu are developed by third parties under different licenses, these licenses apply. The FSF is somewhat happy with this change, but it believes that this still leaves too much ambiguity when it comes to certain licenses. For instance, the X11 package is distributed with a very permissive license, which allows distributors like Canonical to add terms to the license. So in this case, it's not clear whether Canonical's restrictions apply.

The FSF wants Canonical to go a step further by unambiguously removing any restrictions on any free works that are distributed as a part of the Ubuntu archive. Further, the FSF would like to see the language in the policy changed to make it clearer, specifically removing references to software patents.

This is a thorny issue for Canonical. As a commercial company, it's important to protect its reputation and limit its liability. If a company using an altered version of Ubuntu lost its data, who would be to blame? With Canonical's trademarks plastered all over the user interface, it would be the obvious target.

On the other hand, policies that restrict the rights of users to tinker with free software are not acceptable to the FOSS community. As a company that relies on FOSS software for its existence, Canonical must learn to tread lightly. If all the free software were removed from Ubuntu, there wouldn't be much left!

These recent changes are a big step in the right direction. It's clearly in Canonical's best interests to follow the recommendations of the FSF and produce an Intellectual Property policy that is crystal clear and totally unambiguous.