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I am in a position where a company is trying to sell me a modified version of Ubuntu with added proprietary binaries. They are selling it as a complete distro on a usb stick. It clearly shows UBUNTU when booting and at the login screen. Am I able to freely copy this distro and are the company selling it in breach of the Canonical rules?

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    Maybe a link to the company's product would be helpful? I wonder what Ubuntu / Canonical thinks of this – Xen2050 Jan 21 '15 at 11:58
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According to Ubuntu ‘Intellectual property rights policy’, you can not do that:

Any redistribution of modified versions of Ubuntu must be approved, certified or provided by Canonical if you are going to associate it with the Trademarks. Otherwise you must remove and replace the Trademarks and will need to recompile the source code to create your own binaries. This does not affect your rights under any open source licence applicable to any of the components of Ubuntu. If you need us to approve, certify or provide modified versions for redistribution you will require a licence agreement from Canonical, for which you may be required to pay. For further information, please contact us (as set out below).

If you do not want to rebuild Ubuntu, you might consider using a more free operating system, such as Debian GNU/Linux, for example. Its trademark policy does not state clearly how tolerant it is to unofficial images (in particular, ones that contain some non-free software), but it seems to be much more friendly in general; also I did encounter unofficial images that used ‘Debian’ name. Anyway, you’d better ask about it somewhere else. debian-legal@lists.debian.org might be approriate place, I guess.

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    FYI: It is okay to redistribute a modified Debian system that contains the Debian name in it's packages/title screens/etc, but it is not OK to name your distribution "Debian". So you at least need to change the name that is on the disc. For Ubuntu, your need to re-brand the whole distribution. See here: wiki.debian.org/Derivatives/Guidelines#Trademark – jmiserez Jan 21 '15 at 13:44
  • @jmiserez Are you sure? The page, you linked to, says nothing about it. On the contrary, there are several unofficial images, that are labeled ‘Debian’. – Dmitry Alexandrov Jan 21 '15 at 16:25
  • It says right there on the page "Derivative distributions must not be named Debian". You can probably name it xDebian or something like that, but not simply "Debian". Where have you found modified versions of Debian that are named only "Debian"? – jmiserez Jan 21 '15 at 16:33
  • @jmiserez Yes, but OP do not want to make a derivative destribution, just distribute a ready distribution with an additional nonfree package. – Dmitry Alexandrov Jan 21 '15 at 16:43
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    That is the definition of a derivative distribution. He's modifying the Ubuntu image isn't he? So if he ships it together, it's a modification and it's not OK. There are enough ways to distribute a package, a third-party repository/PPA or an installer script are ways to do it without modifying the Ubuntu disc. These are just the rules as they are, the amount of modification does not matter! – jmiserez Jan 21 '15 at 16:50
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I'm not a lawyer and this shouldn't be conceived as legal advice but there are two issues: copyright and trademark.

First the GPL. This is the most restrictive set of licenses used in Ubuntu. Your redistribution is likely going to be classified as an aggregate distribution (you're just distributing a closed source application alongside open source software). On this GNU says:

The GPL permits you to create and distribute an aggregate, even when the licenses of the other software are non-free or GPL-incompatible.

However, if your software depends or links to GPL software, it's not aggregate and then you have bigger issues. If you aren't sure, talk to a lawyer, talk to GNU and talk to the FSF. They'll probably be able to explain exactly where you fall and where you need to be in order to comply.

You may also have separate requirements to make the source to the Ubuntu packages available but given Canonical also has this requirement, you should be fine indefinitely. But read the whole GPL FAQ thing before you assume anything... And again, talk to a real lawyer —not just some weird green guy on the Internet— if you want indemnification from your actions.

The Ubuntu trademark is the next major consideration. Canonical is protective of its IP but they allow various things.

  • Shipping it installed on something with your application on top might not be an issue. It might. It depends how you interpret "associate it with the Trademarks". Urgh, I hate IP law.
  • Shipping a custom Ubuntu with your application likely is an issue.

Either way if you just assume that anything you do is going to annoy Canonical, you'll be safest. Talk to them and either get permission in writing or debrand it. Again, the ear of a paid lawyer will probably help you out here a lot.

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  • @jmiserez I don't think it's that black and white, at all. If it's marketed as Ubuntu, or suggests that they have some sort of arrangement with Canonical, that would be a serious problem... But if something just is Ubuntu (something that has been created and distributed by Canonical), I'd say that's a lot greyer. You should note that Canonical doesn't get the write the law on this. They can say what they don't like but it's how a court would interpret it that really matters. – Oli Jan 21 '15 at 13:16
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    -1: This is wrong, and even contradicts the document you linked. Redistribution of a modified Ubuntu disc is not allowed, unless you remove all mentions of *buntu and other trademarks completely or get permission from Canonical. – jmiserez Jan 21 '15 at 13:16
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    More than anything, the advise to assume that anything done is likely going to annoy a trademark holder: "get permission in writing or debrand" covers the practical side of compliance. – Oli Jan 21 '15 at 13:19
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    That's what I'm arguing though. You might not actually be using the trademark by redistributing a system that just so happens to proclaim itself (the main distinction) as "Ubuntu". If you haven't modified that code, that's still Canonical using their own trademark. I freely admit that isn't what's written on the page and that assuming this could get you sued, I think you'd have an argument unless you were directly using the name. Modifications to Firefox et al are a bit different. – Oli Jan 21 '15 at 13:28
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    GNU GPL is the most restrictive licence in Ubuntu – is it true? Does not default Ubuntu installation iclude nonfree software from ‘restricted’ repository? – Dmitry Alexandrov Jan 21 '15 at 16:32
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It seems that selling an actual USB or DVD containing Ubuntu would be OK, but only because of charging for the actual USB / DVD and "shipping/handling," I think.

If there are other, paid programs on the USB, and Ubuntu is just there "incidentally," that could be something different...

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You can copy and sell Ubuntu disks. This is from the Ubuntu Licensing page:

While Ubuntu will not charge licence fees for this distribution, you might want to charge to print Ubuntu CDs, or create your own customised versions of Ubuntu which you sell, and should have the freedom to do so.

You may copy Ubuntu, but if they include their own binaries, their licensing terms apply. So if they prohibit copying of their binaries, you can only copy the 'free' parts of Ubuntu.

Additionally, the Ubuntu page states, that the trademark for the 'Ubuntu'-brand is a different issue than the software licenses. So I guess it depends how they use it, for it to be a problem. Here the part I'm referring to:

Copyright licensing and trademarks are two different areas of law, and we consider them separately in Ubuntu. The following policy applies only to copyright licences. We evaluate trademarks on a case-by-case basis.

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  • It was my understanding that there was a strict cap on how much one could collect per copy of Ubuntu. I have considered many times the advantages TO EVERYONE if a company such a game manufacturer actually sold its games on self-booting Ubuntu CD-rom disks, thus bypassing many of the compatibility and virus issues. The price would effectively be for the game, not the operating system, but it would have the additional advantage of promoting the Ubuntu OS to a market which might otherwise never be exposed to it. I can't see getting huffy about the case you mention unless they claim ownership. – gyropyge Jan 21 '15 at 12:15

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