Legalese is vague: Always consult a lawyer

Jon recently published a blog post stating that you’re free to create Ubuntu derivatives as long as you remove trademarks. I do not necessarily agree with this statement, primarily because of this clause in the IP rights policy :

Copyright

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.

From what I understand, Canonical is asserting copyright over various binaries that are shipped on the ISO, and they’re totally in the clear to do so for any packages that end up on the ISO that are permissively licensed ( X11 for eg. ), because permissive licenses, unlike copyleft licenses, do not prohibit additional restrictions on top of the software. A reading of the GPL has the explicit statement :

4. You may not copy, modify, sublicense, or distribute the Program
except as expressly provided under this License. Any attempt
otherwise to copy, modify, sublicense or distribute the Program is
void, and will automatically terminate your rights under this License.
However, parties who have received copies, or rights, from you under
this License will not have their licenses terminated so long as such
parties remain in full compliance.

Whereas licenses such as the X11 license explicitly allow sub licensing :

… including without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish, distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software …

Depending on the jurisdiction you live in, Canonical *can* claim copyrights over the binaries that are produced in the Ubuntu archive. This is something that multiple other parties such as the SF Conservancy, FSF as well as Bradley Kuhn have agreed on.

So once again, all of this is very much dependent on where you live and where your ISO’s are hosted. So if you’re distributing an Ubuntu derivative, I’d very much recommend talking to a professional lawyer who’d best be able to advise you about how the policy affects you in your jurisdiction. It may very well be that you require a license, or it may be that you don’t. I’m not a lawyer and AFAIK, neither is Jon.

Addendum/Afterthought :

Taken a bit more extreme, one could even argue that in order to be GPL compliant, derivatives should provide sources to all the packages that land on the ISO, and just passing off this responsibility to Canonical is a potential GPL violation.

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12 thoughts on “Legalese is vague: Always consult a lawyer

  1. “Canonical *can* claim copyrights” how? they have no creative input. They don’t even have algorithmic input because the GCC is copyrighted by the FSF under GPL.

    Yes of course you need to make source available, that’s a basic part of the GPL and free software etiquette.

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    1. They could claim creative input on compile-switches, CI, tests run over code and/or binariee, automated down-/upgrading when compile fails (version-matching between packages), binary compatibility testing, etc. etc.

      Would they succeed with that in a court? Well, would you be willing to spend years in a court to figure it out?

      Thats the thing. Same like with slide-to-unlock trivial-patents, round corner design patents, API patents, etc. Its a risk and no matter how stupid the claims, which are keeped well hidden still, seem to be it will take serious resources and time to clarify within courts. Taken how much years it took already without ANY progress and how blur all these related non-statements we got so far are, this risk is huge and omni-present as soon as touching anything *Buntu. There are reasons for why these problem exists, why it still exists and why Canonical does not want to solve it since years. There are reasons things are keeped cloudy, blur and no answers are given. They DO keep the option use this for attacks.

      Its not worth it. Go debia which not has all these risks and problems.

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      1. By this argument we shouldn’t bother writing free software at all. Fortunately we’ve largely decided to ignore the threat of software patents, and we should do the same with Canonical’s FUD.

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      2. We *DO* solve, like workaround, software-patent problems if they are raised. Wo do *NOT* stop writing free software at all because there could be something. This is a huge different and Canonical did the first, not the later.

        Canonical *DID* raise the issues. The claims are known. This is no abstract thing. Now you/we can either workaround or accept the risk. Accepting the risk is not acceptable. The workaround could be moving to debian.

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    1. > and they promote companies to steal other people’s work, legally.

      That way: greedy companies can use the source code of altruistic people to prevail over them… and finally “be the number one” 😦 forcing people to be regular payers of closed-source software.

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      1. Licenses aren’t even real problems on desktop Linux. There is no money involved, between users and developers, except people love philosophical wars in open source. Take this to say Android, you open a can of worms by open sourcing your app with a permissive licenses. There is a 100% chance of someone cloning your app and selling your work without even adding a single line of code. RMS has been right all along.

        Sorry for absolute opinions but I have seen some good apps going closed source because they were tired of people stealing their work and not contributing back. It is too much work and money for indie developers to pursue legal course.

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      2. > There is a 100% chance of someone cloning your app and
        > selling your work without even adding a single line of code

        Even worse, the money that they had to develop the app… is “better” (for them) used paying people to download the **legally** copied app and to add positive comments (one of their ways of “marketing”). This way your “permissive licensed” app (less downloaded, less evaluated) will get worse search results than their legally copied app (which will appear in a much better place). Who benefits this?

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  2. – excellent points! I think it all comes down to if your business is focused on domain flipping or domain monetization. The monetization camp is growing like crazy which is why I think this intersection is growing as well.

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