Canonical’s Revised Intellectual Property Policy

I would like to add my own, personal, thoughts to the new IP policy released by Canonical on July 15th 2015. The first thing I keep in mind is that Canonical is trying to balance the needs of a for-profit company with the ideals of free software. Based on the fact that Mark Shuttleworth is contributing large amounts of capital to Canonical and the Ubuntu Project I do not question that this effort is anything less than genuine. I will concede that there is reason to ensure that licenses, copyright and trademark language that would secure open source ideals if the ownership of Canonical ever change hands.

What is Canonical trying to protect?

Ubuntu is a trusted open source platform. To maintain that trust we need to manage the use of Ubuntu and the components within it very carefully. This way, when people use Ubuntu, or anything bearing the Ubuntu brand, they can be assured that it will meet the standards they expect.

This passage was unmodified in the new release, but describes the core of what Canonical is trying to protect. They are trying to protect the Ubuntu brands (Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu, Xubuntu, JuJu, Landscape).

What Canonical is not trying to do.

Canonical is not trying to change the licenses of any existing software they are distributing. While I thought this was clear in the original policy Canonical has modified the language to make this more clear. The original policy dealt with this under the Your use of copyright, patent and design materials and your use of Ubuntu sections.

Your use of copyright, patent and design materials:

The disk, CD, installer and system images, together with Ubuntu packages and binary files, are in many cases copyright of Canonical (which copyright may be distinct from the copyright in the individual components therein) and can only be used in accordance with the copyright licences therein and this IPRights Policy.

My interpretation of this policy was, and still is, that Canonical claims that it has copyrights over the Disk, installer, system images, Ubuntu packages and binary files. They make special note that the copyright may be distinct from the copyright in the individual components. Canonical specifies that the use of these must be in accordance with the copyright licensees therein. In other words, binary blob A with a GPLv2 copyright must still be in compliance with GPLv2 to be used. I took this to mean that no Canonical copyright would override or supersede the GPLv2 copyright.

Your Use of Ubuntu:

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. This does not affect your rights under any open source licence applicable to any of the components of Ubuntu.

I want to stress that this test is the same in both the new and original versions. This specifically talks about trademarks and only calls for recompiling the binaries if you want to distribute a modified version of Ubuntu that you do not want to associate with the trademark. My interpretation is that the recompile is necessary since the compiled binary contains the protected trademark. This policy specifically calls out that it does not affect rights that are under any open source license that is applicable to the components.

You can redistribute Ubuntu in its unmodified form, complete with the installer images and packages provided by Canonical (this includes the publication or launch of virtual machine images).

This language is the same in both the current and previous versions. It specifically addresses using virtual machine images that have been unmodified. This is the one section that I feel is a bit unclear. I am not sure about what would happen if a company wanted to use an unmodified version of Ubuntu with a proprietary component added on top. The real world application that I have seen is Aruba Wireless Airwave appliance that runs on top of CentOS. Would running this on top of Ubuntu be allowed? To be fair Aruba did not choose to use Redhat and this is most likely due to the restrictions that Redhat has on redistribution of Redhat binaries.

To further clarify what this language was intended to mean Canonical has added the following:

A bullet point in the summary section that reads:

Ubuntu is an aggregate work; this policy does not modify or reduce rights granted under licences which apply to specific works in Ubuntu.

An entire section immediately following the summary.

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.

I think both of these sections clarify what Canonical’s intent is. It is apparent that the FSF agrees with this as well.

This update now makes Canonical’s policy unequivocally comply with the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL) and other free software licenses.

However, I do not see this clarification addressing the one concern I noted above about virtual machine appliances or containers that use unmodified Ubuntu with proprietary bits added on top as is the case with the Aruba Airwave Appliance. I see the same concern being raised by Matthen Garrett.

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

Garrett goes on to make a claim that, for me, is unclear. He could be correct with his interpretation, but I am not positive.

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 binaries.

The IP Policy states:

Otherwise you must remove and replace the Trademarks and will need to recompile the source code to create your own binaries.

This does not specify all nor does it specify only those affected binaries. I see this language as being unclear as to which binaries need to be recompiled. I also agree with Garrett on the issue of confusion over what constitutes a trademark. Does this include the word ‘ubuntu’ in version strings or in maintainers email addresses.

Frustrating Process

For many this has been a long drawn out and frustrating process, but I would like to advert your attention to some comments by Bradley M. Kuhn to keep this in perspective.

First of all, I think it’s important to note the timeline: it took two years of work by two charities to get this change done. The scary thing is that compared to their peers who have also violated the GPL, Canonical, Ltd. acted rather quickly. As Conservancy pointed out regarding the VMware lawsuit, it’s not uncommon for these negotiations to take even four years before we all give up and have to file a lawsuit. So, Canonical, Ltd. resolved the matter at least twice as fast as VMware, and they deserve some credit for that — even if other GPL violators have set the bar quite low.

It should be noted that not only did Canonical take less time to comply than VMWare, but the VMWare case is about VMWare actually changing the license terms on code taken from the Linux kernel for use in their own kernel. From what I can see in the case of Canonical it was about the wording and possible interpretations of the old policy. The only situation that I am aware of that might rise to this level is the case of Canonical requiring Mint to obtain a license. Since I am not privy to the details of that license I do not know if it was related to the trademark or is similar to the VMWare violation. Based on the details I do have access too it is my belief that it was related to trademarks and was not an attempt to take GPL licensed code and violate the terms of the GPL license.

Moving Forward

It should also be noted that the FSF statement on the negotiations noted that Canonical repeatedly that their intention was to liberally allow use of their trademarks and patents by community projects.

Canonical, in our conversations, repeatedly expressed that it is their full intention 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.

I also agree with the FSF statement about the need for clarity for user to know their rights in advance.

While we appreciate today’s development and do see it as a big step in that direction, 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.

The inclusion of the wording ‘greatest extent possible’ highlights what I perceive to be the difficulty of balancing the needs of a for-profit company with the ideals of free software. While Redhat use a subscription model for restricting access to binaries and updates that has been found to be in compliance with the GPL I am glad that Canonical is trying to find a different model to monetize their efforts. I appreciate being able to use the same distribution in production as I use at home instead of having to use Fedora/CentOS vs Redhat unless I want to pay to be a subscriber. It is also interesting to note that despite the difference in models that Redhat has been seen by some to violate the spirit of GPL licensing and moved their appliances from CentOS to Scientific Linux when Redhat acquired CentOS.

While the topic is charged and can lead to heated debate all members of the Ubuntu Community should act with humanity towards others while discussing the policy and the changes. Progress is not made while belittling or berating others just because they do not agree with your position. While I normally do not moderate comments on my blog beyond removing spam I will do so on this post with regard to any comments which I find abrasive and rude.

As a member of the Ubuntu Community and the larger Free Software Movement I urge people to avoid using sensationalized language like landing punches or slap downs. Leave such phrases to websites that are looking to generate traffic. Bombast is not a basis for working collaboratively to improve the current wording.

I also want to stress, again, that this is my opinion and interpretation of both versions of Canonical’s policy. I am not a legal expert and my opinions should not be used as legal advice.

edit: Clarified that my interpretation of this policy was, and still is, that Canonical claims that it has copyrights over the disk, installer, system images, Ubuntu packages and binary files. I am not making assertion that this is a legally valid claim.

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2 Responses to Canonical’s Revised Intellectual Property Policy

  1. “Canonical has copyrights over the Disk, installer, system images, Ubuntu packages and binary files.”

    This is completely untrue and very dangerous to claim it.

    The ISO disk images are made up of individual packages, there is no additional copyright added.
    The installer has copyright owned by many people including myself.
    System images I don’t know what this means.
    Ubuntu packages are copyright owned by whichever upstream wrote them.
    The binary files have copyright owned by whichever upstream wrote them.

    All packages in the Ubuntu archive are free to share, copy and modify (or share and copy in the case of restricted and multiverse). Any suggestion otherwise is incorrect, incompatible with Ubuntu policy and extremely damaging to the community which you are enrolled to encourage.

    • Charles Profitt says:


      As stated twice, I am not a lawyer with expertise in copyright law. I am merely trying to interpret in layman’s terms what is being claimed. I know that compilations are eligible for copyright in the US, but I am not sure about outside of the US. I think it is unfair and unwise to claim “it is completely untrue” unless you are an expert and can site case law. No interpretation of the law can be so definitively spoken about until there is case law.

      You and I see some of the same issues, but because I do not unequivocally share your particular interpretation you want to argue over semantics. We should work together to move this forward and not let smaller things derails collaborative effort.

      In the end, what is important, is that the policy is clear for the community. At this point that still needs to be improved.

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