“Ubuntu is entirely committed to the principles of free software development; we encourage people to use free and open source software, improve it and pass it on.” is what used to be printed on the front page of ubuntu.com. This is still true but recently has come under attack when the project’s main sponsor, Canonical, put up an IP policy which broke the GPL and free software licences generally by claiming packages need to be recompiled. Rather than apologising for this in the modern sense of the word by saying sorry, various staff members have apologised in an older sense of the word meaning to excuse. But everything in Ubuntu is free to share, copy and modify (or just free to share and copy in the case of restricted/multiverse). The archive admins wills only let in packages which comply to this and anyone saying otherwise is incorrect.
In this twitter post Michael Hall says “If a derivative distro uses PPAs it needs an additional license.” But he doesn’t say what there is that needs an additional licence, the packages already have copyright licences all, of them free software.
It should be very obvious that Canonical doesn’t control the world and a licence is only needed if there is some law that allows them to restrict what others want to do. There’s been a few claims on what that law might be but nothing that makes sense when you look at it. It’s worth examining their claims because people will fall for them and that will destroy Ubuntu as a community project. Community projects depend on everyone having the freedom to do whatever they want with the code else nobody will give their time to a project that someone else will then control.
In this blog post Dustin Kirkland again doesn’t say what needs a licence but says one is needed based on Geographical Indication. It’s hard to say if he’s being serious. A geographical indication (GI) is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin and are then assessed before being registered. There is no Geographical Indication registration in Ubuntu and it’s completely irrelevant to everything. So lets move on.
A more dangerous claim you can see on this reddit post where Michael Hall claims “for permissively licensed code where you did not build the binary, there is no pre-existing right to redistribution of that binary”. This is incorrect, everything in Ubuntu has a free software licence with an explicit right to redistribution. (Or a few bits are public domain where no licence is needed at all.) Let’s take the libX11 as a random example, it gets shipped with a copyright file containing this licence:
“Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the “Software”), to deal in the Software without restriction”
so we do have permission. Shame on those who say otherwise. This applies to the source of course and so it applied to any derived work such as the binaries, which is why it’s shipped with the binaries. It even says you can’t remove remove the licence:
“The above copyright notice and this permission notice (including the next paragraph) shall be included in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.”
So it’s free software and the licence requires it to remain free software. It’s not copyleft, so if you combine it with another work which is not free software then the result is proprietary, but we don’t do that in Ubuntu. The copyright owner could put extra restrictions on but nobody else can because it’s a free world and you can’t make me do stuff just because you say so, you have to have some legal way to restrict me first.
One of the items allowed by this X11 licence is the ability to “sublicense” which is just putting another licence on it, but you can’t remove the original licence as it says in the part of the licence I quoted above. Once I have a copy of the work I can copy it all I want under the X11 licence and ignore your sublicence.
This is even true of works under the public domain or a WTFPL
style licence, once I’ve got a copy of the work it’s still public domain so I can still copy, share and modify it freely. You can’t claim it’s your copyright because, well, it’s not.
In Matthew Garrett’s recent blog post he reports that “Canonical assert that the act of compilation creates copyright over the binaries”. Fortunately this is untrue and can be ignored. Copyright requires some creative input, it’s not enough to run a work through a computer program. In the very unlikely case a court did decide that compiling a programme added some copyright then they would not decide that copyright was owned by the owners of the computer it ran on but on the copyright owners of the compiler, which is the Free Software Foundation and the copyright would be GPL.
In conclusion there is nothing which restricts people making derivatives of Ubuntu except the trademark, and removing branding is easy. (Even that is unnecessary unless you’re trading which most derivatives don’t, but it’s a sign of good faith to remove it anyway.)
Which is why Mark Shuttleworth says “you are fully entitled and encouraged to redistribute .debs and .iso’s”. Lovely.