Ubuntu MAAS, very cool, awesome in fact, looks like a unique tool for several jobs.

It looks free, but part of its documentation starts already with clauses that would scare anyone with interest in it:

  • Documentation is copy righted by Canonical;
  • Documentation must be used only for non-commercial purposes;
  • If documentation is distributed within the non-commercial clause you must retain copyright;

It just sounds a lot for a guide on how to install MAAS + Juju + Openstack and that scares me a bit. Why does documentation built from the community prevent me from doing anything except look at it? We produce a guide, but I cannot take it to work and look at it or show it as a possible tool that my company would be interested in using or contributing to?

My question is then: Under what license is Ubuntu MAAS distributed and what would be the reasoning for being so worried about copyrighting a simple guide like that so heavily? Is Ubuntu MAAS free?

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    Your comment makes it clear that you are not so versed in these matters. That legal notice you linked to applies only to the document and not the software; the copyright notice on the software was posted below by Oli. Open any book and you will find a similar notice in its first pages. The copyright notice is not a license, and may not determine if distribution/usage is free or paid. Once released, the license of a particular software version can not be altered. Jun 4, 2014 at 8:58
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    facepalm you are confusing things and will gently request you to stop doing it. The question is done and its simple enough as it is. Jun 4, 2014 at 9:19
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    @LuísdeSousa A copyright notice in a book is a license for how you can and can't use it. They are equivalent. The question is concerned that an official Ubuntu document being non-free might affect the rest of the project. IMO that's a valid concern.
    – Oli
    Jun 4, 2014 at 9:40
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    Hi Oli. In Europe Copyright is a different legal entity from a License. Usually books do not include licensing, only Copyright, which by default limits copy, redistribution, etc. This may be different in the US, but Canonical is based in the UK and at least for now must abide to European law. Since there is no reference to source code in the document, that Copyright notice has no relation whatsoever to the License bounding the source code distribution. Jun 4, 2014 at 12:04
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    @poolie Idd, don't really know what is the site's policy in this case. Tried to find the repo that contained the code that built it that document but that also failed. Will flag the post and let the moderators handle it. May 21, 2015 at 7:11

4 Answers 4


I suspect they're just trying to stop people nicking portions of the documentation for their own nefarious purposes but no, by all measures that matter to people like us, that document is not free.

But the MAAS packages in the main repos all use the AGPL3 license:

MAAS is Copyright 2012 Canonical Ltd.

Canonical Ltd ("Canonical") distributes the MAAS source code
under the GNU Affero General Public License, version 3 ("AGPLv3").
The full text of this licence is given below.

Third-party copyright in this distribution is noted where applicable.

All rights not expressly granted are reserved.

AGPL3 is a pretty strange license if you haven't seen it before. It's just like GPL3 except for an additional clause, paraphrased on the "Why AGPL?" GNU page:

if you run the program on a server and let other users communicate with it there, your server must also allow them to download the source code corresponding to the program that it's running. If what's running there is your modified version of the program, the server's users must get the source code as you modified it.

It's undoubtedly free but while most free software licenses let you keep website modifications to yourself, this requires you make them available. That could be important. It might be too free for your purposes. It's an interesting license.

Will it always be free? Probably. Standard open-source logic applies here:

  • If they own the code, they could release future versions as non-free, for-money (or otherwise) releases and stop releasing under AGPL.
  • But Canonical can't stop people redistributing the current version.
  • And they couldn't stop somebody continuing development and/or redistributing a fork of the current version (provided it uses another name).

Like a lot of project starters, Canonical gets extended permissions from contributors to its projects. I can't remember what the current name for this copyright agreement but it would make it extremely easy for Canonical to release closed-source versions of its products... But again, they can't stop the current versions from being [A]GPL.

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    Current agreement -> canonical.com/contributor-license-agreement Jun 4, 2014 at 9:27
  • One difference between the two is that the old agreement was a copyright assignment agreement (where the contributor granted ownership of the contribution to Canonical), while the new one is a copyright license agreement (where the contributor grants permission for Canonical to distribute the contribution). Jun 4, 2014 at 9:28
  • That is an important distinction in terms of personal developer rights but doesn't change what Canonical can do with the code.
    – Oli
    Jun 4, 2014 at 9:30
  • Ok, it was more to provide the current "Canonical gets extended permissions from contributors to its projects. I can't remember what the current name for this copyright agreement but it would make it extremely easy for Canonical to release closed-source versions of its products" than to justify any doubts from my side. Jun 4, 2014 at 9:33
  • I'm not disagreeing with you, I was just reaffirming that the change (mentioned in the quote) from the CCA to the CLA doesn't change what my answer says.
    – Oli
    Jun 4, 2014 at 9:38

The MAAS source code is distributed under AGPLv3. Assuming there are no additional clauses concerning distribution or usage, it becomes effectively free (even if the code needs to be compiled).

But will further releases retain this License? Naturally no one in the community can answer this question. Even if Canonical themselves wish to retain this License, future policy changes are unpredictable (the company can be acquired, merged or simply disbanded).

If having MAAS open sourced is crucial to your company/institution, then the wisest procedure is to legally bind Canonical into it. This would involve firming a contract by which Canonical legally commits to maintain the software and release future versions under an agreed license (or picking from a pre-determined set of licenses). In such scenario, and assuming your company is also seeded in the EU, the wisest option is the EUPL.

My advice would be for your company/institution to contact Canonical Legal inquiring for the possibility of such a contract. Even if you do not really intend to firm such contract, their receptiveness, or lack thereof, might already tell you where they are headed.

If your company/institution does not have the legal skills/resources to deal with these issues, I would advise you to seek help from OSOR.


The text quoted in the comment shows that at least the documentation is non-free.

The Launchpad page for MAAS, which seems to be the most detailed source, says on 2015-05-21

GNU Affero GPL v3, Other/Proprietary (temporary)
This project’s licence is proprietary.

So it seems that MAAS is at least partially under a proprietary licence. It's hard to find out exactly what that licence might be, and it's not present in the source tree.

Canonical seems to hold that in addition to the source code licence declared in the tree, they have other rights over software they publish, declared in http://www.ubuntu.com/legal/terms-and-policies/intellectual-property-policy.

This page talks specifically about Ubuntu, but applies to all their trademarks and other intellectual property rights and so would seem to include MAAS. It imposes some limitations on redistribution of collections of software, themes, and installer images.

It's not clear to me exactly how they intend this to be interpreted but it does seem they believe there are further restrictions on how you can use the software beyond what's granted by the source tree's licences.

See also, this question about selling computers with Ubuntu pre-installed and restrictions on commercial use.


You have to understand that Canonical makes a living by supporting (for money) software which is free (to distribute). This document is relevant to support MAAS, which is free. So, to address your 3 points:

  • Canonical copyright license - that's automatic anyway, as they wrote it.
  • Non-commercial use - don't compete with Canonical using Canonical resources
  • Retain copyright clause - fairly obvious, you can't just strip legal conditions.
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    So that's a 'no', in short. A non-commercial use clause makes something non-free software according to the FSF's Free Software Definition, or the Debian Free Software Guidelines.
    – poolie
    May 20, 2015 at 19:27
  • @poolie: Be aware that you might be making the same mistake here, and that's confusing free software and free documentation. There are dozens if not hundreds of copyrighted books about Linux, and that doesn't make Linux one iota less free. MAAS can be free even if the documentation isn't.
    – MSalters
    May 20, 2015 at 20:25
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    @MSalters agreed, but are those book created by contributing members as part of a open-source project? No they are not. That was why the question showed up in the first place. May 21, 2015 at 7:25
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    @MSalters "Canonical copyright license - that's automatic anyway, as they wrote it." - that document was built from launchpad branch from contributors of the open-source project MAAS. Being able to claim that Canonical "wrote" it just shows how shady the contributors license is. May 21, 2015 at 7:29
  • @BrunoPereira: The individual contribution copyrights do not take away the fact that there's a separate copyright created by Canonical when they compiled those contributions into a book.
    – MSalters
    May 21, 2015 at 8:49

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