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You are here: Home FSF News Statement on Canonical's updated licensing terms for Ubuntu GNU/Linux

Statement on Canonical's updated licensing terms for Ubuntu GNU/Linux

by Free Software Foundation Contributions Published on Jul 15, 2015 10:02 AM
On July 15th, 2015, the Free Software Foundation's Licensing and Compliance Lab, along with the Software Freedom Conservancy, announces that, after two years of negotiations, Canonical, Ltd. has published an update to the licensing terms of Ubuntu GNU/Linux.

This update now makes Canonical's policy unequivocally comply with the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL) and other free software licenses. It does this by adding a "trump clause" that prevails in all situations possibly covered by the policy:

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.

In July 2013, the FSF, after receiving numerous complaints from the free software community, brought serious problems with the policy to Canonical's attention. Since then, on behalf of the FSF, the GNU Project, and a coalition of other concerned free software activists, we have engaged in many conversations with Canonical's management and legal team proposing and analyzing significant revisions of the overall text. We have worked closely throughout this process with the Software Freedom Conservancy, who provides their expert analysis in a statement published today.

While the FSF acknowledges that the first update emerging from that process solves the most pressing issue with the policy -- its interference with users' rights under the GNU GPL and potentially other copyleft licenses covering individual works within Ubuntu -- the policy remains problematic in ways that prevent us from endorsing it as a model for others. The FSF will continue to provide feedback to Canonical in the days ahead, and urge them to make additional changes.

Today's "trump clause" makes clear that, for example, Canonical's requirement that users recompile Ubuntu packages from source code before redistributing them is not intended to and does not override the GPL's explicit permission for users to redistribute covered packages in binary form (with no recompilation requirement) as long as they also provide the corresponding source.

While this change handles the situation for works covered by the GPL, it does not help works covered by lax permissive licenses (such as the X11 license) that do allow such additional restrictions. With that in mind, the FSF has urged Canonical to not only respect the GPL but to also change its terms to remove restrictions on any of the free works it distributes, no matter which license covers that software. In the meantime, this is a useful reminder that developers are nearly always better off choosing copyleft licenses like the GPL in order to prevent others from imposing arbitrary restrictions on users.

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 trademark policy should be revised to provide better guidance to downstream distributors so that they can be confident they know exactly where and when trademarks need to be removed in order to comply with the policy.

Canonical, in our conversations, repeatedly expressed that it is their full intention to liberally allow use of their trademarks and patents by community projects, and not to interfere with the exercise of rights under any copyleft license covering works within Ubuntu. While we appreciate today's development and do see it as a big step in that direction, we hope they will further revise the policy so that users, to the greatest extent possible, know their rights in advance rather than having to inquire about them or negotiate them. To this end, it will be important to choose language and terms that emphasize freedom over power and avoid terms like intellectual property, which spread bias and confusion.

It would be helpful for the FSF, as we evaluate the importance of the remaining work like this to be done with Canonical in relation to the other activities of the FSF's Licensing and Compliance Lab (such as doing GPL enforcement, and developing public educational materials about free software licensing), to know how significantly you, as a free software user, see this policy affecting your rights. Please contact us at, and Canonical via their contact form.

Donations to support the work of the FSF's Licensing and Compliance Lab in safeguarding your freedoms can be made at Over 80% of the FSF's annual funding comes from individuals like you.

Lastly, we wish to thank FSF general counsel Eben Moglen and everyone at the Software Freedom Law Center for their pro bono legal counsel and extensive participation in the conversations of the last two years.

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