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Free software fans land crucial punch in Ubuntu row – but it's not over

They'd like Canonical to make still more changes to licensing

Canonical has updated the intellectual property rights policy for Ubuntu Linux to address a brouhaha over how the software is licensed, but free software advocates still aren't satisfied.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) have been bickering with Canonical since 2013 over concerns that certain clauses of the Ubuntu IP rights policy seemed to claim to override provisions of the GNU General Public License (GPL) – something the GPL explicitly forbids.

On Wednesday, Canonical published a new version of the policy that the FSF and SFC has resolved this central issue satisfactorily, but the advocacy groups say there are still other issues to address.

"While the FSF acknowledges that the first update emerging from that process solves the most pressing issue with the policy ... the policy remains problematic in ways that prevent us from endorsing it as a model for others," the Richard Stallman-founded group said in a statement.

The specific change Canonical made was to add what's known as a "trump clause," which acknowledges that Canonical's policy does not override the original licenses of software included in the Ubuntu distro:

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.

In particular, the FSF was concerned that Canonical's policy required anyone who wanted to distribute a modified version of Ubuntu to compile their own binaries, while the GPL has no such requirement. The updated policy negates this restriction.

While that's fine for GPL-licensed software, however, the FSF points out that the policy change does nothing to remove the binary restriction from software with more permissive, non-copyleft licenses, such as the Apache or BSD licenses. The FSF believes Canonical shouldn't go around adding arbitrary restrictions to anyone's software, regardless of the license.

In a separate statement, the SFC observed that while the policy change should help in many circumstances, it's still less than ideal for organizations that make a habit of redistributing Ubuntu. Such groups could still be vulnerable to litigation should Canonical disagree with their interpretation of its IP policy.

"Redistributors of Ubuntu have little choice but to become expert analysts of Canonical, Ltd.'s policy," the SFC wrote. "They must identify on their own every place where the policy contradicts the GPL ... 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."

The FSF added that the clauses of Canonical's policy that relate to other kinds of intellectual property also tended to curtail Ubuntu users' freedoms. For example, the FSF would like to see more specific language letting redistributors know under which exact circumstances trademarks must be scrubbed to comply with the policy.

"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 FSF said.

For its part, Canonical pointed out in a statement that it uses the GPL as the default license for the software that it creates itself, "because we believe it is the license that creates the most freedoms for its users."

In an emailed statement, Canonical CEO Jane Silber told The Reg:

In discussions with the FSF and SFC, it was requested that we clarify our policies in regard to rights which apply to files in Ubuntu that are covered by the GPL. Our existing policy does not restrict rights granted for GPL packages, and we have been happy to add a section to our policy to eliminate any doubt in that regard.

We will continue to evolve our policies, in consultation with the very diverse groups that make up the open source community, to reflect best practice and the needs of Canonical and the Ubuntu community.

The FSF added that it has received pro bono legal support and counsel from Eben Moglen and the Software Freedom Law Center throughout its two-year negotiations with Canonical. ®

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