The announcement by the FSF and Software Freedom Conservancy has a lot of jargon in it so to help people better understand I am going to do an analysis. Mind you, back in 2012, I reached out to the FSF on these very licensing concerns which no doubt combined with other developers contacts set in motion these discussions.
In July 2013, the FSF, after receiving numerous complaints from the free software community, brought serious problems with the policy to Canonical’s attention. Since then, on behalf of the FSF, the GNU Project, and a coalition of other concerned free software activists, we have engaged in many conversations with Canonical’s management and legal team proposing and analyzing significant revisions of the overall text. We have worked closely throughout this process with the Software Freedom Conservancy, who provides their expert analysis in a statement published today.
So this is about a year after the time I exchanged emails with Dr. Richard Stallman not only about privacy issues that Canonical was trying to wave off but also these licensing issues. We (myself and other Ubuntu Developers) had been hearing that other distros had been essentially bullied into signing contracts and licenses pursuant to Canonical’s IP Policy for Ubuntu at the time.
While the FSF acknowledges that the first update emerging from that process solves the most pressing issue with the policy — its interference with users’ rights under the GNU GPL and potentially other copyleft licenses covering individual works within Ubuntu — the policy remains problematic in ways that prevent us from endorsing it as a model for others. The FSF will continue to provide feedback to Canonical in the days ahead, and urge them to make additional changes.
In a nutshell, the FSF is making it clear while some progress was made that the Ubuntu IP Policy is still not a good example of a policy that protects the freedoms you have to using code under the licenses of software Ubuntu bundles into the distro we use and love. This is concerning because Canonical has essentially made some concessions but put its foot down and not made as much change as it needs to.
Today’s “trump clause” makes clear that, for example, Canonical’s requirement that users recompile Ubuntu packages from source code before redistributing them is not intended to and does not override the GPL’s explicit permission for users to redistribute covered packages in binary form (with no recompilation requirement) as long as they also provide the corresponding source.
As an example, Canonical was through its legal team asking some distros including Mint that they needed a license to redistribute Ubuntu but this is not true because the underlying licenses already set the rights individuals and groups have in redistributing code.
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. In the meantime, this is a useful reminder that developers are nearly always better off choosing copyleft licenses like the GPL in order to prevent others from imposing arbitrary restrictions on users.
It is clear since the FSF with its ally, the Software Freedom Conservancy in tow, was only able to achieve some success on the GPL front. The FSF being a good steward of the greater open source community realizes this and notes that the policy still has restrictions on freedoms other licenses entitled to you. As such, the FSF is calling on Canonical to do more and do the right thing and not just make concessions but follow all the licenses of software it uses.
Further, the patent language in the current policy should be replaced with a real pledge to only make defensive use of patents and to not initiate litigation against other free software developers. The trademark policy should be revised to provide better guidance to downstream distributors so that they can be confident they know exactly where and when trademarks need to be removed in order to comply with the policy.
This is a very important bit because it protects open source developers and ironically if you read the IP Policy it has some foolish statement like “Canonical has made a significant investment in the Open Invention Network, defending Linux, for the benefit of the open source ecosystem.” which is laughable because here the FSF and Software Freedom Conservancy is having to ask Canonical to respect the licenses of not only Linux but thousands of other pieces of open source software it claims it invests in defending.
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. 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. To this end, it will be important to choose language and terms that emphasize freedom over power and avoid terms like intellectual property, which spread bias and confusion.
This is perhaps the most important part because basically the FSF is making it clear the IP Policy still continues to confuse some users and that confusion may chill users into not exercising the freedoms they have to use the software that is freely licensed. Also it is concerning because the IP Policy as it stands violates the community values of the Ubuntu project.
In closing, Canonical should be thanked for making some concessions after so many years but should also, on the same token, be encouraged to fix the document entirely and protect the rights and freedoms of users and respect the licenses of the software Ubuntu ships. Additionally, this makes it clear that Jonathan Ridell, another Ubuntu Community Member who advocated time and time again on this matter and was shut down by the Ubuntu Community Council, really deserves at the very least a formal apology from the Ubuntu Community Council. When individuals ability to speak freely on important issues of advocacy are chilled in Open Source projects, it creates an unwelcoming environment. Jonathan Ridell is by no means the first person to be shut down by leaders in the community or Canonical itself. Over the past few years, there has been a trickle of departures because of people being silenced. In fact, Ubuntu Contributors and LoCo participation is at an all time low, as is participation in the Ubuntu Developer Summit which can only be linked to these attacks on advocates over the years.
Canonical has yet to release any statement in their press centre and neither has the Ubuntu Community Council which said it would wait until
it learned of the outcome of the FSF and SFC asking Canonical to adjust its infringing IP Policy.