Canonical changes licensing terms to comply with GPL

ubuntu changing lanes
Credit: MPD01605/Flickr

Canonical’s IP policy is now in compliance with GNU GPL, but derivatives must be extra careful when basing their work on Ubuntu.

If you had to sing praise for Canonical changing its license policy, it might be to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

How many mails should Riddell send
Before you can change your IP policy?

Canonical’s answer:

The answer, my friend, lies in his stepping down,
The answer is him stepping down.

Ubuntu: Friendly software, not-so-friendly policies

Canonical has done an incredible job at creating an open source, consumer-friendly operating system that can run across devices. However, it has failed miserably when it comes to handling issues like copyrights, trademarks, and licenses, often wrongly dubbed “IP,” adding to the confusion around these terms.

To refresh your memory, Canonical tried to use trademark law to stop EFF employee Micah Lee from running his Fix Ubuntu site, which was critical of the privacy leaks in Ubuntu. EFF attorneys hit back telling the company its claim was not "supported by trademark law and interferes with protected speech." As expected, Canonical backtracked and called it a mistake.

Copyright has also been a bone of contention between the open source community and Canonical. Canonical told a popular derivative, Linux Mint, that it needed a license from Canonical to use its binary packages. Later, the Linux Mint team ended up signing a deal with Canonical to use binaries for an undisclosed fee (if any).

Jonathan Riddell: Fighting for a cause

Kubuntu founder Jonathan Riddell, who has been trying to resolve this issue with the Ubuntu Council from early days, blogged back in 2013, “No license is needed to make a derivative distribution of Kubuntu. All you need to do is remove obvious uses of the Kubuntu trademark. Any suggestion that somehow compiling the packages causes Canonical to own extra copyrights is nonsense. Any suggestion that there are unspecified trademarks that need a license is untrue. Any suggestion there is compilation copyright is irrelevant in most countries and untrue for derivatives almost by definition. Any suggestion that the version number needs a trademark license is just clutching at straws."

While he did make it clear regarding Kubuntu, IP policy guiding Ubuntu kept things confusing and uncertain. I don’t think there was any ill intent by Canonical; it probably wanted to protect the trademark from getting diluted by some derivatives. What raised concerns was the way it handled the issue and lack of transparency.

Riddell urged the Ubuntu Council to clarify this vagueness around IP and licensing, but the discussion continued to get ugly with passing time. In the end, instead of coming up with an answer, the Ubuntu Council and Mark Shuttleworth forced Riddell to step down as the leader of the project, stating that they no longer recognized him as the leader.

Working with FSF and FSC

While the future of Kubuntu is uncertain, the continuous pestering by Riddell has led to some progress. Canonical has been working with Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Free Software Conservancy (FSC) to make amendments to its licensing terms to bring it in compliance with GNU GPL, a license used by a majority of “free software” projects.

What could have been done in a matter of days took Canonical over two years to negotiate with the two bodies. What made things even more interesting is that FSC, which works closely with FSF, didn't even know that Canonical was also working with FSF on the same issue. Probably no one at Canonical told them so? Upon learning this, the two bodies decided "to speak with one voice in negotiation with Canonical Ltd. to resolve the matter amicably."

What was wrong with the previous policy?

Before delving into what was changed, it’s important to first understand what was wrong. FSC claimed that for all those years, Canonical's policy was violating the GNU GPL clauses. The GPLv2§6 and GPLv3§10-3 explicitly prohibited restrictions on the rights already granted in the GPL. As such, any extra requirement imposed on distribution of GPL'd software violated GPL.

What Canonical was doing through its previous policy was forcing redistributors to recompile the source code to create their own binaries. The fact is, as stated by FSC (and also in a blog by Riddell), "GPL never requires recompilation of binaries; rather, the GPL simply requires that you pass along source code that successfully can be recompiled into binaries (and installed) by someone skilled in software development."

So the restriction put in place by Canonical, where it made Linux Mint sign a deal for an undisclosed amount, was apparently forbidden by GNU GPL.

Two conflicting licensing policies?

There is another piece of this puzzle. In our conversation, Riddell pointed me to another IP policy posted on He told me that the policy is what Ubuntu follows and is policed by the archive admins, including himself. He further added, “There's nothing that can't be freely shared or modified in main and universe.”

I have no idea why there are two conflicting IP-related policies on

New policy has a “trump clause”

Canonical added a new clause to its IP policy that brings it into compliance with GNU GPL components used in Ubuntu. The new clause, “2. Relationship to other licenses,” 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."

So far both FSF and FSC are happy with those changes. FSF wrote in a blog post, "This update now makes Canonical's policy unequivocally comply with the terms of the GNU General Public License and other free software licenses."

There are still major issues with this policy

Is this the final fix to Canonical's licensing problems, something Riddell has been fighting for ages? FSF doesn't fully agree. The foundation said that while “these updates have solved the most pressing issue with the policy, it remains problematic in ways that prevent [FSF] from endorsing it as a model for others."

So what’s the problem? FSC warns: “Redistributors of Ubuntu have little choice but to become expert analysts of Canonical, Ltd.'s policy. They must identify on their own every place where the policy contradicts the GPL. If a dispute arises on a subtle issue, Canonical, Ltd. could take legal action, arguing that the redistributor's interpretation of GPL was incorrect. Even if the redistributor was correct that the GPL trumped some specific clause in Canonical, Ltd.'s policy, it may be costly to adjudicate the issue.”

Matthew Garrew, a renowned software developer, called the new policy garbage. He agrees that Canonical wants to ensure people won’t take Ubuntu, modify it and pass it on as Ubuntu. But he warns, it goes beyond that. He wrote in a blog post, “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 binaries."

He said this would create problems for anyone producing a device that runs an operating system based on Ubuntu, even if it's entirely invisible to the user (e.g., an embedded ARM device using Ubuntu as its base OS); anyone producing containers based on Ubuntu; and anyone producing cloud images (such as AMIs) based on Ubuntu.

Garret further wrote, “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 isn't using trademark law here. Canonical assert that they hold copyright over binaries that they have built from 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."

And that’s not all. Ubuntu is made up of different software components that use different licenses: Some use copyleft licenses and use some non-copyleft licenses. FSC worries, “Since non-copyleft licenses do not necessarily forbid imposition of further restrictions, the community of Ubuntu redistributors should respond with concern. 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.”

FSF has urged Canonical to "change its terms to remove restrictions on any of the free works it distributes, no matter which license covers that software."

FSF also wants Canonical to replace the language regarding patents with a “real” pledge that Canonical will "only make defensive use of patents and to not initiate litigation against other free software developer."

Pointing at the “trademark” issues around Ubuntu, FSF suggests that Canonical’s trademark policy should “liberally" allow use of its trademarks and patents by community projects, and “not to interfere with the exercise of rights under any copyleft license covering works within Ubuntu."

When can we expect the next amendment?

It's nice to see Canonical has done something about the licensing policy. Though it’s only a beginning and it still needs to do more work. The good news is FSC, FSF and Canonical are working together on this. The bad news is the Ubuntu project had to pay a huge price for it. The biggest collateral damage has been Kubuntu and its founder Riddell.

Will Canonical act swiftly to address the remaining concerns? I have seen Canonical/Ubuntu born and growing up. I have seen them making mistakes, and I have seen them admitting their mistakes and correcting them. I am very much hopeful that they will eventually fix this one too. What I don't know is when we will see the next amendment to the policy change. Riddell, who has become Ned Stark in this saga, said, "I don’t see much progress happening in the future."

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