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Name: Matthew Garrett
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Canonical's deliberately obfuscated IP policy

I bumped into Mark Shuttleworth today at Linuxcon and we had a brief conversation about Canonical's IP policy. The short summary:

  • Canonical assert that the act of compilation creates copyright over the binaries, and you may not redistribute those binaries unless (a) the license prevents Canonical from restricting redistribution (eg, the GPL), or (b) you follow the terms of their IP policy. This means that, no matter what Dustin's blogpost says, Canonical's position is that you must ask for permission before distributing any custom container images that contain Ubuntu binaries, even if you use no Ubuntu trademarks in the process. Doing so without their permission is an infringement of their copyright.
  • Canonical have no intention of clarifying their policy, because Canonical benefit from companies being legally uncertain as to whether they have permission to do something or not.
  • Mark justifies maintaining this uncertainty by drawing an analogy between it and the perceived uncertainties that exist around certain aspects of the GPL. I disagree with this analogy pretty strongly. One of the main reasons for the creation of GPLv3 was to deal with some more ambiguous aspects of GPLv2 (such as what actually happened after license termination and how patents interacted with the GPL). The FSF publish a large FAQ intended to provide further clarity. The major ambiguity is in what a derivative work actually is, which is something the FSF can't answer absolutely (that's going to be up to courts) but will give its opinion on when asked. The uncertainties in Canonical's IP policy aren't a result of a lack of legal clarity - they're a result of Canonical's refusal to answer questions.

The even shorter summary: Canonical won't clarify their IP policy because they believe they can make more money if they don't.

Why do I keep talking about this? Because Canonical are deliberately making it difficult to create derivative works, and that's one of the core tenets of the definition of free software. Their IP policy is fundamentally incompatible with our community norms, and that's something we should care about rather than ignoring.

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Syndicated 2015-08-18 19:02:52 from Matthew Garrett

Difficult social problems are still difficult problems

After less than a week of complaints, the TODO group have decided to pause development of their code of conduct. This seems to have been triggered by the public response to the changes I talked about here, which TODO appear to have been completely unprepared for.

While disappointing in a bunch of ways, this is probably the correct decision. TODO stumbled into this space with a poor understanding of the problems that they were trying to solve. Nikki Murray pointed out that the initial draft lacked several of the key components that help ensure less privileged groups can feel that their concerns are taken seriously. This was mostly rectified last week, but nobody involved appeared to be willing to stand behind those changes in a convincing way. This wasn't helped by almost all of this appearing to land on Github's plate, with the rest of the TODO group largely missing in action[1]. Where were Google in this? Yahoo? Facebook? Left facing an angry mob with nobody willing to make explicit statements of support, it's unsurprising that Github would try to back away from the situation.

But that doesn't remove their blame for being in the situation in the first place. The statement claims
We are consulting with stakeholders, community leaders, and legal professionals, which is great. It's also far too late. If an industry body wrote a new kernel from scratch and deployed it without any external review, then discovered that it didn't work and only then consulted any of the existing experts in the field, we'd never take them seriously again. But when an industry body turns up with a new social policy, fucks up spectacularly and then goes back to consult experts, it's expected that we give them a pass.

Why? Because we don't perceive social problems as difficult problems, and we assume that anybody can solve them by simply sitting down and talking for a few hours. When we find out that we've screwed up we throw our hands in the air and admit that this is all more difficult than we imagined, and we give up. We ignore the lessons that people have learned in the past. We ignore the existing work that's been done in the field. We ignore the people who work full time on helping solve these problems.

We wouldn't let an industry body with no experience of engineering build a bridge. We need to accept that social problems are outside our realm of expertise and defer to the people who are experts.

[1] The repository history shows the majority of substantive changes were from Github, with the initial work appearing to be mostly from Twitter.

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Syndicated 2015-08-08 20:01:52 from Matthew Garrett

Reverse this

The TODO group is an industry body that appears to be trying to define community best practices or something. I don't really know what their backstory is and whether they're trying to do meaningful work or just provide a fig leaf of respectability to organisations that dislike being criticised for doing nothing to improve the state of online communities but don't want to have to actually do anything, and their initial work on codes of conduct was, perhaps, suboptimal. But they do appear to be trying to improve things - this commit added a set of inappropriate behaviours, and also clarified that reverseisms were not actionable behaviour.

At which point Reddit lost its shit, because Reddit is garbage. And now the repository is a mess of white men attempting to explain how any policy that could allow them to be criticised is the real racism.

Fuck that shit.

Being a cis white man who's a native English speaker from a fairly well-off background, I'm pretty familiar with privilege. Spending my teenage years as an atheist of Irish Catholic upbringing in a Protestant school in a region of Northern Ireland that made parts of the bible belt look socially progressive, I'm also pretty familiar with the idea that that said privilege doesn't shield me from everything bad in life. Having privilege isn't a guarantee that my life will be better, in the same way that avoiding smoking doesn't mean I won't die of lung cancer. But there's an association in both cases, one that's strong enough to alter the statistical likelihood in meaningful ways.

And that inherently affects discussions about race or gender or sexuality. The probability that I've been subject to systematic discrimination because of these traits is vanishingly small. In the communities this policy is intended to cover, I'm the default. It's very difficult for any minority to exercise power over me. "You're white, you wouldn't understand" isn't fundamentally about my colour, it's about the fact that my colour means I haven't been subject to society trying to make my life more difficult at every opportunity. A community that considers saying that to be racist is a community that will never change the default, a community that will never be able to empower people who didn't grow up with that privilege. A code of conduct that makes it clear that "reverse racism" isn't grounds for complaint makes it clear that certain conversations are legitimate and helps ensure we have the framework we need to gradually change that default, and as such is better than one that doesn't.

(comments disabled because I don't trust any of you)

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Syndicated 2015-08-04 21:59:57 from Matthew Garrett

Your Ubuntu-based container image is probably a copyright violation

I wrote about Canonical's Ubuntu IP policy here, but primarily in terms of its broader impact, but I mentioned a few specific cases. People seem to have picked up on the case of container images (especially Docker ones), so here's an unambiguous statement:

If you generate a container image that is not a 100% unmodified version of Ubuntu (ie, you have not removed or added anything), Canonical insist that you must ask them for permission to distribute it. The only alternative is to rebuild every binary package you wish to ship[1], removing all trademarks in the process. As I mentioned in my original post, the IP policy does not merely require you to remove trademarks that would cause infringement, it requires you to remove all trademarks - a strict reading would require you to remove every instance of the word "ubuntu" from the packages.

If you want to contact Canonical to request permission, you can do so here. Or you could just derive from Debian instead.

[1] Other than ones whose license explicitly grants permission to redistribute binaries and which do not permit any additional restrictions to be imposed upon the license grants - so any GPLed material is fine

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Syndicated 2015-07-20 19:33:04 from Matthew Garrett

Canonical's Ubuntu IP policy is garbage

(In order to avoid any ambiguity here, this is a personal opinion. The Free Software Foundation's opinion on this matter is here)

Canonical have a legal policy surrounding reuse of Intellectual Property they own in Ubuntu, and you can find it here. It's recently been modified to handle concerns raised by various people including the Free Software Foundation[1], who have some further opinions on the matter here. The net outcome is that Canonical made it explicit that if the license a piece of software is under explicitly says you can do something, you can do that even if the Ubuntu IP policy would otherwise forbid it.

Unfortunately, "Canonical have made it explicit that they're not attempting to violate the GPL" is about the nicest thing you can say about this. The most troubling statement is 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.. 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

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.

Now obviously this is good engineering practice in a whole bunch of ways, but it's a huge pain in the ass. And to make things worse, Canonical won't clarify what they consider to be use of their trademarks. Many Ubuntu packages rebuilt from Debian include the word "ubuntu" in their version string. Many Ubuntu packages will contain the word "ubuntu" in maintainer email addresses. Many Ubuntu packages include references to Ubuntu (for instance, documentation might say "This configuration file is located under /etc/default in Debian and Ubuntu"). And many Ubuntu packages will include the compiler version string, which will include the word "ubuntu". Realistically, there's no risk of confusion by using the trademarks in this way, and as a consequence there would be no infringement under trademark law. But Canonical aren't using trademark law here. Canonical assert that they hold copyright over binaries that they have built form source, and require that for you to have permission to redistribute these binaries under copyright law you must remove the trademarks. This means that it doesn't matter whether your use of the trademarks would be infringing or not - you're required to remove them, because fuck you that's why.

This is a huge overreach. It's hostile to free software, in that it makes it significantly more difficult to produce derivative works of Ubuntu and doesn't benefit the community in the process. It's hostile to our understanding of IP law, in that it claims that the mechanical process of turning source code into binaries creates an independently copyrightable work. And in some cases it may make it impossible to create derivative works that interoperate with Ubuntu due to applications making assumptions about the presence of strings.

It'd be easy write this off as an over the top misinterpretation of the policy if it hadn't been confirmed by the Ubuntu Community Manager that any binaries shipped by Ubuntu under licenses that don't grant an explicit right to redistribute the binaries can't be redistributed without permission or rebuilding. When I asked for clarification from Canonical over a year ago, I got no response[2]. Perhaps Canonical don't want to force you to remove every single use of the word Ubuntu from derivative works, but their policy is written such that the natural reading is that they do, and they've refused every single opportunity they've been given to clarify the point.

So, we're left with a policy that makes it hugely impractical to redistribute modified versions of Ubuntu unless Canonical approve of it. That's not freedom, and it's certainly not Ubuntu. If Canonical are serious about participating in the free software community then they need to demonstrate their willingness to continue improving this policy to bring it closer to our goals. Failure to do so will give a strong indication of their priorities.

[1] While I'm a member of the FSF's board of directors, I'm not involved in the majority of the FSF's day to day activities and was not part of this process
[2] Nebula's OS was a mixture of binary packages we pulled straight from Ubuntu and packages we rebuilt, so we were obviously pretty interested in what the answer was

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Syndicated 2015-07-15 19:20:38 from Matthew Garrett

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