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Saturday, 12 March 2011 12:37

Canonical must change copyright policy

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The next chapter in the three-cornered public stoush between the GNOME Desktop Project, the KDE Project and Canonical, the maker of the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution, has just been kicked off by GNOME Foundation board member Dave Neary.


Former GNOME media adviser Jeff Waugh has also decided to get involved with a post that, he says, is the first in a series. Waugh, it may be recalled, left the project in 2008, a year after he had been accused of being part of it for just one reason - self-publicity. He did not deny the accusation.

Thus far, in Waugh's contribution to the stoush on Neary's blog, he has been accused of trying to
sidetrack arguments and he has been critical of Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth who was once his employer.

While Neary's addition to the argument is sober by comparison to that of KDE developer Aaron Seigo, it serves only one purpose - to keep the festering row going. Old conflicts and disputes are raised and people who have grievances come out of the woodwork to get their own back.

Bad feeling between GNOME and Canonical has been festering recently after the latter decided to use its own interface, Unity, for the next version of Ubuntu, instead of the forthcoming GNOME 3 shell.

A second spat took place more recently between Canonical and the developers of the Mono-dependent music player Banshee - which is to be the default in Natty Narwhal, the next version of Ubuntu - over the splitting of royalties from music sales.

The revenue was going to GNOME in toto before Banshee was included in Ubuntu, but Canonical wanted to take a big slice of the money once it became the default player for Narwhal. The issue has now been settled.



But there is an elephant in the room that hovers around this entire debate and which is raised only occasionally - the question of the copyright licensing policy which Canonical has in place. It is clear that at least some of the dislike that developers have for Shuttleworth is due to this policy.

Back in Janury 2010, Linux Weekly News editor Jonathan Corbet raised the issue but did not include Shuttleworth's side of the story. When I wrote to Shuttleworth he was extremely forthcoming and sent me a detailed reply, stating his case.

In October, LWN linked to a blog post by GPL expert and free software activist Bradley Kuhn, which accused Shuttleworth of going on the record about following an "open core" policy.

(Under this policy, a company provides a base product under a licence that is approved by the Open Source Initiative and then sells commercial extensions.)

At that time too, when I wrote to Shuttleworth and asked him for his side of the story he promptly issued a denial.

But now he fights shy when asked about the copyright licensing policy. In December 2010 and again in January 2011, I wrote to him and asked: "If you're not planning to take your company's software proprietary, why are you insisting on contribution terms which explicitly give you the right to take the software proprietary?" There has been no response.

Code which developers write is often their sole claim to employment. Developers of free software and open source software can always point to their code to prove their prowess, provided they have the right to dual-license it.

But when they surrender their copyright, then they lose the one thing that, above all, defines them and gives them an advantage over their brethren who code for makers of proprietary software.

Shuttleworth, who heads a project that provides the most widely used GNU/Linux distribution, needs to sort out this matter on an urgent basis. It is peripheral to the relationship with GNOME, a relationship that seems to be deteriorating by the day.

GNOME, KDE and Ubuntu are all very important parts of the infrastructure that makes up the FOSS ecospace. Each has a vital role to play; if things continue to go down the path we have seen over the last few days it will only hinder the progress that FOSS as a whole has made over the last five years.

 

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Sam Varghese

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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