Canonical Clarifies IP Policy, No One Else Happy

by Ostatic Staff - Jul. 16, 2015

In the continuing saga of Canonical versus contributors' rights, a clarification was issued today. Most consensus is that Canonical's "trump clause" fixes the largest part of the intellectual property dispute, but still leaves issues unresolved. The Free Software Foundation and the Software Freedom Conservancy played key roles and have issued their own statements. Bradley M. Kuhn, Matthew Garrett, and Jonathan Riddell weigh in as well.

Two years ago Canonical published their IP policy and immediately questions were raised. The wording was such that it sounded a lot like anything contributed to Ubuntu or its derivatives became the property of Canonical. Concerned developers asked Canonical for a clarification and today it was finally made. Roughly three weeks after receiving the requested resignation of Kubuntu lead Jonathan Riddell for questioning Canonical's policies, the clarification he was asking for was finally granted.

In a statement to the Canonical blog today, Canonical CEO Jane Silber said of their IP Policy, "We are adding a single clause which states:"

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

This is what some refer to as a "trump clause" and it's an easy way to achieve compliance. Bradley M. Kuhn, President Software Freedom Conservancy, said they are "less than ideal because they achieve compliance only by allowing a copyleft to prevail when the overarching license contradicts specific requirements, permissions, or rights under copyleft." He said this is a common practice in the software industry today and while it's not the best solution, it's really par for the course. He also noted that if you see a trump clause it's probably because there is some "software-freedom-unfriendly restriction floating around in the broader agreement, and you should thus just avoid that product entirely."

The Software Freedom Conservancy statement read, in part, "While Conservancy believes the key software freedoms and rights to copy, modify and redistribute Ubuntu are fully assured by this change with regard to copylefted software, a trump clause does not help with regard to non-copyleft licenses. Since Ubuntu is an aggregation of many copylefted and non-copylefted programs, full permission to redistribute Ubuntu as a whole remains in question."

Matthew Garrett, Free Software Foundation board member, is a little less accepting calling the IP Policy "garbage." He's concerned about the part that reads, "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." Garrett said this reaches beyond trying to keep folks from wrongly using the Ubuntu or Canonical trademarks. It might effect:

* 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 essence, any code a contributor uploads to Launchpad will have to be approved by Canonical to be used elsewhere or the developer will have to rebuild everything. Garrett said:

It's a huge pain in the *ss. 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 f**k you that's why. This is a huge overreach. It's hostile to free software."

The FSF statement expressed concerns as well saying, "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. We hope they will further revise the policy so that users, to the greatest extent possible, know their rights in advance rather than having to inquire about them or negotiate them."

Jonathan Riddell isn't especially pleased either. He said, "There’s still dangers of it being non free by restricting non-GPL code and using patents and trademarks. The worry still exists for people who trust corporate sayings over community policy. All I can take from [today's announcement] is that the issues I spoke about were real concerns, even if no more than that, and they haven't gone away."