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Friday, 29 May 2015 15:06

Kubuntu row heats up as gas is added to the fire

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Events that have led to the leader of the Kubuntu GNU/Linux distribution being asked to step down have prompted free and open source software developer Matthew Garrett to offer to make DMCA complaints against Canonical, which funds Kubuntu, if anyone can offer proof that the company is enforcing its IP policy.

Kubuntu is an offshoot of the Ubuntu distribution which was first released by Canonical in 2004. It is funded by Canonical, as are offshoots which use desktop environments other than that which are used by Ubuntu.

One of the main reasons for the Kubuntu leader, Jonathan Riddell, being asked to step aside has been his questioning whether the Canonical IP policy is in line with that of the Free Software Foundation. A sizeable amount of the software that goes into a Linux distribution is released under licences that have been drafted by the FSF.

Canonical's IP policy, published in May 2013, basically states that nobody can re-use its trademarks and also stipulates that software within the Ubuntu distribution cannot be redistributed in its original form, no matter the licence under which it is released. This latter point is contested by many.

The FSF has sought clarification on this policy, since it appears to go against some of its own licences, and Canonical is said to be waiting for final approval from the organisation before it publishes a final draft.

Garrett's statement, on his Twitter feed, was preceded by one that said he had asked Canonical's legal department in February 2014 for clarification on packages on which he holds copyright, but had not received a reply.

He would target the US mirrors of Ubuntu in the event that the proof he seeks is provided. But how exactly this would sit with Garrett being a member of the FSF board is unknown.

Last year, Riddell wrote that he had advised the developer of Linux Mint that he could freely use packages from Kubuntu, provided the trademarks were removed. This was in response to the developer in question telling Riddell that he had "been contacted by Canonical's community manager to tell him he needed to licence his use of the packages he used from Ubuntu".

Since then, the distance between him and the parent, Canonical, has widened. The leader of Kubuntu is selected by the community around the distribution and thus while the head of Canonical, Mark Shuttleworth, has indicated that the company no longer recognises Riddell as the head of Kubuntu, the community appears to be backing him.

Many of the issues that Canonical, and by extension, Shuttleworth, have faced from the community that has coalesced around Ubuntu and its derivatives is that the vision around Ubuntu was never clearly articulated at the time the project began.

As a commercial entity, Canonical has to make money to balance its books some time or the other; the owner (Shuttleworth) may have deep pockets but they do have a finite limit. An indication that money is becoming a factor may be the recent hints that Canonical could go in for an IPO. One never knows, unless one is on the inside.

There are a large number of people who are on the Kubuntu Council, the Ubuntu Council and the like, and who give freely of their time to make a contribution to the distributions. Shuttleworth cannot afford to antagonise too many of them; some, who fall in line with his largely unstated strategy, do not make a sound, while others, like Riddell, speak out and often embarrass their benefactor.

Shuttleworth has rubbed many people the wrong way and some of them gather around at times like this and pour oil on the fire.


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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