Conservancy & the FSF Achieve GPL Compliance for Canonical, Ltd. “Intellectual Property” Policy

Ubuntu Policy Complies With GPL But Fails To Address Other Important Software Freedom Issues

July 15, 2015

Today, Canonical, Ltd. announced an updated “Intellectual Property” policy. Conservancy has analyzed this policy and confirms that the policy complies with the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL), but Conservancy and the FSF believe that the policy still creates confusion and possible risk for users who wish to exercise their rights under GPL.


Conservancy, on behalf of its GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers, and its other GPL'd projects such as Samba, first received a GPL violation report in April 2013 regarding the earlier Canonical, Ltd. “Intellectual Property” policy. After a few months working on this matter, Conservancy discovered that the FSF was also working on the issue. The FSF and Conservancy agreed that it was best for the GPL enforcement community to speak with one voice in negotiation with Canonical, Ltd. to resolve the matter amicably. Conservancy has since then coordinated with the FSF as they took the lead in seeking resolution for the matter. In recent weeks, both FSF and Conservancy have negotiated directly with Canonical, Ltd. to resolve the GPL violation.

Why The Original Policy Violated

The GPLv2§6 and GPLv3§10¶3 explicitly forbid restrictions on the rights already granted in the GPL. As such, any extra requirement imposed on distribution of GPL'd software violates GPL. Copyleft advocates have historically described such requirements this way: no further agreement can “trump” the rights granted by GPL.

For example, Canonical, Ltd.'s original policy required that redistributors needed to recompile the source code to create [their] own binaries. GPL never requires recompilation of binaries; rather, the GPL simply requires that you pass along source code that successfully can be recompiled into binaries (and installed) by someone skilled in software development. Requirement of such action as a condition of distribution is an extra requirement, and the GPL forbids its imposition.

Today's Change

Today, as an outcome of these careful negotiations the FSF and Conservancy conducted with Canonical, Ltd., they have published an updated policy that includes this revision:

Ubuntu is an aggregate work of many works, each covered by their own license(s). For the purposes of determining what you can do with specific works in Ubuntu, this policy should be read together with the license(s) of the relevant packages. For the avoidance of doubt, where any other license grants rights, this policy does not modify or reduce those rights under those licenses.

This change is sufficient for compliance with the GPL. This “trump clause” effectively reverses the default situation of the policy, and mandates that when Canonical, Ltd.'s policy contradicts something that the GPL requires, or prohibits something that the GPL allows, the rights granted in the GPL shall prevail.

While a trump clause is a reasonable way to comply with the GPL in a secondary licensing document, the solution is far from ideal. Redistributors of Ubuntu have little choice but to become expert analysts of Canonical, Ltd.'s policy. They must identify on their own every place where the policy contradicts the GPL. If a dispute arises on a subtle issue, Canonical, Ltd. could take legal action, arguing that the redistributor's interpretation of GPL was incorrect. 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.


Therefore, Conservancy encourages Canonical, Ltd. to make the many changes and improvements to their policy recommended during the FSF-led negotiations with them. Good community actors should embody the spirit of software freedom as well as meeting the exact letter of the rules.

Even more importantly, since non-copyleft licenses do not necessarily forbid imposition of further restrictions, the community of Ubuntu redistributors should respond with concern. While Conservancy believes the key software freedoms and rights to copy, modify and redistribute Ubuntu are fully assured by this change with regard to copylefted software, a trump clause does not help with regard to non-copyleft licenses. Since Ubuntu is an aggregation of many copylefted and non-copylefted programs, full permission to redistribute Ubuntu as a whole remains in question.

Finally, Conservancy recommends reading the FSF's statement on Canonical, Ltd.'s policy as well.

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