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I'm starting a business and this is part of what I'm going to be offering. I'm almost complete with my certification in Linux Administration, but I don't know all of the ins and outs of the law Linux is under...

10 Answers 10

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It depends. Ubuntu is free software (beyond some redistributable binary blobs), but if you're using it for commercial purposes there are trademark restrictions.

The Legal Fine Print

Permission from us is necessary to use any of the Trademarks under any circumstances other than those specifically permitted above. These include:

  • Any commercial use. OEM services. [...]
  • Use for merchandising purposes, e.g. on t-shirts and the like.
  • Use of a name which includes the letters BUNTU in relation to computer hardware or software.

Source: Ubuntu Trademark Policy

Hardware with a debranded Ubuntu OS

If you remove all branding, trademarks, and references to Ubuntu, you are legally okay to sell systems with it installed. Of course, you must provide the source code of all GPL components to customers that request it.

Hardware shipping with Ubuntu "as is"

To use the Ubuntu trademark, you must secure the Canonical's OEM services team's permission. You can contact them to see if what you're doing is okay. This should not be too difficult, as several small vendors like System76 and ZaReason have secured an agreement.

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    Does the branding within the OS actually count as "using" the trademark if it's not mentioned in any of your marketing materials? – Random832 Jan 8 '12 at 16:25
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    @Random832: No. A trademark is the "exclusive right to use the registered mark in commerce" (§1115 Lanham Act) – MSalters Jan 9 '12 at 8:31
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    iusmentis.com/trademarks/crashcourse/limitations says "Also, trademark rights are exhausted when a trademarked product lawfully enters the market. The trademark holder then normally can no longer act against resale of the trademarked product.". OP should probably ask a real lawyer, though, particularly if he has any intention of doing this without getting permission. – Random832 Jan 9 '12 at 14:40
  • Do you know much it will cost to sell a smartphone with Ubuntu Touch OS installed for the vendor to pay to Canonical? I was proposing an idea for ZTE to provide an Ubuntu OS option to be preinstalled on their phones. If we get enough vote, ZTE can release an Ubuntu phone for consumers to choose. But I am not sure about the cost. See community.zteusa.com/ideas/1869 – Xiaodong Qi Aug 16 '16 at 8:41
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It is completely legal to sell a computer with Ubuntu preinstalled. It even lowers the cost.

It is also legal to sell CDs/DVDs with Ubuntu in them.

In both is legal because you are not selling Ubuntu, you are selling the hardware that comes with it. In the case of the PC, you are selling all that hardware that comes with Ubuntu so the end user does not need to worry about the many problems in Windows (Or the costs in Mac).

With the CD/DVD, you are selling the cost that you had to pay to have the CD/DVD. Burning the CD/DVD also has a cost as well as having a design printed on the CD/DVD.

If you worry about this, what you need to know is that the only thing illegal here is to charge directly for Ubuntu as it would something you made.

The laws of Freedom explicitly state:

  • Freedom to run the program
  • Freedom to access the code
  • Freedom to redistribute the program to anyone
  • Freedom to improve the software

These are freedoms oriented to what you can do with information, not how the information got to you. So charging for a CD of Ubuntu that you downloaded, burned, made a printing design on it, put on a plastic cover that you also bought with that nice logo you wanted to use is totally okay. Same goes for that computer you bought in pieces, assembled them, install Ubuntu and upgraded it. Installed additional tools for the end user. Tested the PC for 2 days to make sure it was perfect for your buyer. And then sold it to the buyer is also OK. You are actually charging for the work you put to offer this to the end user. Your client.. and after having Ubuntu installed in it he/she would be.. your happy client.

To give you a better feeling about this, you can see as companies like Dell, Asus and others sell Laptops with Ubuntu installed. Several universities offer CD/DVD with Ubuntu in them for a low price. Even events like Flisol offer installing Ubuntu (In this case free) since they can install it directly to the client or with a cost if they need to give out a CD/DVD of it (Of course since most of us pitch in, the cost of the CD/DVD for the new users is free).

UPDATE - AS mentioned by popey, there are a couple of things you need to read:

OEM Services (Read the WHOLE thing) - http://www.canonical.com/engineering-services/oem-services/oem-services

Trademark Policy - http://www.ubuntu.com/aboutus/trademarkpolicy

For the trademark, as long as you do not use a extensively modified version of Ubuntu (Extensive as in changing the directory structure, modifying many basic tools and programs, changing names, etc) you will not have a problem with the trademark. In your case where you only mention the installation and configuration of Ubuntu you won't have problems with this.

UPDATE 2 - As mentioned by drewbenn in his comment here is a good link about this: https://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#DoesTheGPLAllowMoney which complements the rest mentioned in the answer.

  • You also need to take account of the trademark policy ubuntu.com/aboutus/trademarkpolicy – popey May 26 '12 at 21:58
  • @popey - Very good point. I will add the important parts I see from there and the OEM Services. – Luis Alvarado May 26 '12 at 22:02
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    It even lowers the cost. - I guess you mean, that it lowers the costs, compared to an installed Windows, not compared to a plain blank PC? That might not be true. PCs are often preinstalled in great numbers, so there isn't really an installation process, but just big numbers of harddrives copied from machine to machine. A manual installation of a few Linux PCs will take much more time, if you have to do it yourself or if you have to pay somebody to do it. You save the license fee, but you have opportunity costs. – user unknown May 27 '12 at 0:49
  • For the user asking the question and for me it lowers the cost since we do not need to buy a windows license. In both cases we want to install the Os but to install it, in windows case I need to buy it, in Ubuntu I need to download it ^^. 100$ less. With regards to installing Linux on several PCs, it would take less if compared to Windows, in Linux you can actually dd in a network with several tools. So it would take you the same time to install it on 100 PCs that on 5 since it would clone itself via the network with a very easy and fast setup on each PC. – Luis Alvarado May 27 '12 at 0:59
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    You seem to be talking about generic GPL software, not specifically Ubuntu (which includes lots of non-GPLed software), but it's important to note that you are allowed to sell GPLed software for as much as you want -- hundreds or thousands of dollars, even. But you must also either include the source or an offer to send the source (on physical media for GPLv2, or on the Internet for GPLv3), and you can't charge much for the source. See e.g. gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html#DoesTheGPLAllowMoney . – drewbenn May 27 '12 at 5:32
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Linux is protected both under copyright law and trademark law, as is Ubuntu. The GPL and similar Open source licenses give specific permission to copy Ubuntu software, as required by copyright law.

That leaves you with trademarks. Under the doctrine of nominative use, you are specifically allowed to use the Ubuntu trademark to describe Ubuntu. Trademarks are intended to signal that your customers get the "real deal" and not something that's just similar to Ubuntu.

You may not over-use the Ubuntu trademark. I.e. you cannot suggest that your hardware is also part of Ubuntu, that Ubuntu is optimzied for your hardware, or use their logo.

Jacob Johan Edwards suggests that Canonical imposes restrictions on the commercial use of the Ubuntu trademark. However, federal law does not give Canonical the right to impose restrictions on the legal use of trademarks.

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Selling computers with Ubuntu pre-installed is actually not as clear-cut as others have explained. You should read the Ubuntu trademark policy specifically the parts under "Restricted use that requires a trademark licence". Note for example

Permission from us is necessary to use any of the Trademarks under any circumstances other than those specifically permitted above. These include: Any commercial use.

Selling a computer with Ubuntu pre-installed is "commercial use".

  • Not actually. The "commercial use" refers to use of the trademark. So don't refer to or use the Ubuntu trademark in a way that suggests you are affiliated with Canonical, but go ahead and sell the computer with pre-installed Ubuntu. – Chan-Ho Suh May 28 '12 at 4:15
  • @Chan-HoSuh Since Popey is a canonical employee, I'm more inclined to defer to his answers. – jrg May 29 '12 at 21:06
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    @jrg This flies in the face of how trademarks typically work. It won't be the first time a company has claimed extra privileges on their trademark beyond what the law gives them. – Chan-Ho Suh May 29 '12 at 22:12
  • @Chan-HoSuh Regardless, you would be toeing a fine line. It's just easier and safer to talk to Canonical first, and then go from there. – jrg May 29 '12 at 22:22
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    @jrg That's the sad thing. The only reason, seemingly, that people are thinking there's a "fine line" is that Canonical is being overly aggressive here. The idea of nominative (fair) use of trademarks is well-established. You can even sell Lexus-brand cars from a domain name using the word "Lexus" without permission (there's no way to describe the service without using "Lexus", they do not use the symbol, and there's a disclaimer distancing themselves from Toyota). – Chan-Ho Suh May 30 '12 at 0:00
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Vanilla Ubuntu: You should be fine. But if you install some more software on to it, like proprietary software you are not allowed to distribute, then maybe not.

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Dell and Christmann (just to name a few) do what's asked in the first question. So yes it is legal to install Ubuntu and then sell the Computer - as long as you don't charge for something you don't have the rights to.

My University did sell CDs with Ubuntu on them. So yes, that's legal too.

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    Because Universities can't do wrong? – user unknown May 27 '12 at 0:51
  • No, but good ones usually check very carefully before they do such a thing. – con-f-use May 27 '12 at 9:34
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    Or they get a license or permission before-hand. That does not mean just anyone is allowed to sell it without doing so before-hand. – Kissaki May 27 '12 at 10:56
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I think Ubuntu is mostly GPL software, so the right to distribute it can't be restricted by license or trademark policy.

So you can install Ubuntu on an assembled PC, and it can't be prohibited to sell it. Now as a dealer, you have to inform your customer what you want to sell them. So it can't be prohibited to tell them, what you've installed on the hardware.

Of course in your acting you have to avoid the impression that you're acting in the name of Ubuntu, as part of the company behind Ubuntu or using their logo.

However, as a nice guy, I would tell them what I want to do.

  • Canonical explicitly disagrees with your position that the right to redistribute mostly GPL software can't be restricted: The disk, CD, installer and system images, together with Ubuntu packages and binary files, are in many cases copyright of Canonical (which copyright may be distinct from the copyright in the individual components therein) and can only be used in accordance with the copyright licences therein and this IPRights Policy... – poolie May 22 '15 at 1:07
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It's possible...but you have to check that you are shipping your machine with proprietary software...If so then you have to get permission from respective owners...

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I don't know what they are trying to say but as a linux user as well as developer I ensure you one thing There are some distribution of unix os that are made free for everyone and many struggled for this. So, I suggest use any of the free distribution and I request not to charge for the os but its up to you.

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You can sell machines with Ubuntu pre-installed ,but you are not able to charge your customers for the operating system.

  • I understood that much, but it's nice to know I wasn't wrong. Thank you for the verification. – Torian Allen Jan 8 '12 at 3:56
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    Can you back this up somehow? It's not at all clear to me that Ubuntu's license(s) prevent you from selling it, or that "selling Ubuntu" and "selling hardware running Ubuntu" are that clearly distinguished, legally speaking. – Adrian Petrescu Jan 8 '12 at 6:26
  • For most (all?) free software licenses, you're free to charge money if you want, but you might have to make the source code available at no charge. But I don't know about the binary blobs. – Scott Severance Jan 8 '12 at 23:02
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    @Oxwivi: Re-read the GPL, the most restrictive of the open-source licences. You're perfectly free to sell such software if you want, no matter what Canonical might say. However, you probably have to change the name due to Canonical's trademarks. Who owns the copyright is irrelevant, unless the binary blobs are an impediment. As for RHEL, last I knew it included some closed-source RH software. So it's a whole different beast. All Canonical software in Ubuntu is open source. – Scott Severance Jan 9 '12 at 9:03
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