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Ubuntu Community Council Still Vague About Derivatives’ Licensing

A few months back, Clément Lefebvre of the Linux Mint project hinted at ongoing discussions about licensing access to binaries from Canonical – and a lot of speculation arose around this, but beyond Clem’s initial statement, and DistroWatch’s Jessie Smith’s insight, we haven’t heard anything official until Thursday 13th Feb, when the Ubuntu Community Council issued a statement on the matter:


(For those who are confused about how binaries might be withheld when source code is free: see my notes lower down.)

KDE and Kubuntu blogger and developer Jonathan Riddell posted a piece stating that no derivatives of Kubuntu would need to pay a license: http://blogs.kde.org/2014/02/14/no-licence-needed-kubuntu-derivative-distributions

At the same time Silviu Stahie posts on Softpedia an article stating that derivatives do have to pay: http://news.softpedia.com/news/Canonical-Explains-Why-Linux-Mint-and-All-Other-Distros-Must-Sign-a-License-Agreement-426770.shtml

Confused by this, I went and read the council’s statement, and found that the meat of the text is in only a couple of sentences:

“Canonical already provides a license for the use of these [trademarks] to the Ubuntu project and all of its distributions, including Ubuntu itself as well as those flavors that are developed in collaboration with it.”

So far so good: a trademark license agreement is in place at Canonical, and the official distro and all the official derivatives are granted it.

“We believe there is no ill-will against Linux Mint, from either the Ubuntu community or Canonical and that Canonical does not intend to prevent them from continuing their work, and that this license is to help ensure that. What Linux Mint does is appreciated, and we want to see them succeed.”

And this part simply says that they appreciate what the Mint project is doing. Nowhere does it say that Mint has been granted license of the binaries, nor does it say license is being revoked or granted, nor that payment is being demanded at all, nor whether they are foregoing the idea of fees.

In essence, the communication says nothing decisive – only that a license regarding trademarks exists, and that it needs to be granted, but not whether payment must be made. It doesn’t even say whether any agreement has been reached.

The way I read it, it’s a call to the community to say “tone down your nattering whilst we sort this out, and stop making assumptions about what we’re thinking before we even have a chance to say something. Give us time to agree amongst ourselves first.” Too many cooks and all that.

If Canoncial did decide to charge licensing, would this request be legal?

Regardless of the trademarks (which I don’t think are surreptitiously disseminated amongst the packes in the repos, that’s just “conspiracy theory” as far as I can tell), the question remains for many as to whether Canonical even has the right to require payment.

The GPL and similar licenses require the source code of a program to be provided, but does not prevent anyone from selling their compiled binary. A purchaser of the binary can then go on to distribute this to others free of charge (providing they have the corresponding source code too) – so even if a derivative were made to pay a license fee to its parent distro, it could subsequently re-distribute the binary to users for free.

Alternatively, it could simply take the Free source and compile and host it in their own repository, but that is costly in both time and hardware, so it’s handy for all the derivatives to be able to use Canonical’s repos directly.

If Canonical were to decide to request payment for accessing their binaries directly from their servers (a service) even while the sources of the software are Free, that could undermine the derivate projects, if only for a while, until a Ubuntu-compatible independent repo were created, that is, a repo which took the sources and repacked them for Ubuntu-based distros.

But from a binary-licensing standpoint, I see no legal issue in Canonical doing this. Let;s see how it all plays out.

Read more in the GNU GPL FAQ.

Posted in Free and Open Source, Linux

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