Mark Shuttleworth, the first South African in space and founder of Canonical and the Ubuntu Linux distribution, has published an unusually long and very detailed mea culpa on his personal blog following outrage among the Linux community against the Ubuntu team over the last two weeks.
What were these outrages which have led to such hand-wringing? First, Shuttleworth himself managed to upset quite a few free software developers by likening people who criticised Ubuntu’s new display manager, Mir, as “the Open Source Tea Party”. One of the lead developers on the KDE project – a popular Linux desktop and alternative to Ubuntu’s own Unity look and feel – was particularly aggrieved by this one, while another has been asking Shuttleworth to personally explain his remarks for the last month.
The more serious problem, however, popped up last week when Canonical issued a cease-and-desist type order to a site that is critical of Ubuntu’s default privacy settings for new users. The company’s legal team wrote to fixubuntu.com asking them to stop using the Ubuntu trademark – prompting an internet outcry that Ubuntu was using trademark law to silence critics, which is a very un-open source thing to do.
As far as the first apology goes, Shuttleworth says that likening critics to the Tea Party:
Unnecessary and quite possibly equally offensive to members of the real Tea Party (hi there!) and the people with vocal non-technical criticism of work that Canonical does (hello there!).
He says that he has no beef with people who criticise Ubuntu for technical reasons, rather he was fed up with people complaining about Canonical’s strategy to develop its own window manager rather than contribute to improving one of the existing ones used by other distributions.
I was talking about criticism of software which does not centre on the software itself, but rather on some combination of the motivations of the people who wrote it, or the particular free software license under which it is published, or the policies of the company, or the nationality of the company behind it. Unless critique is focused on improving the software in question it is pretty much a waste of the time of the people who are trying to improve the software in question.
As for the second issue, Shuttleworth that the order was sent in error by a newcomer to the firm who thought he was acting in accordance with company policy on trademark issues. Canonical, Shuttleworth says, has a very liberal policy towards usage of its trademarks, as befits a company embedded in the FOSS community. But the trademark does have to be defended, he explains, or else the company is liable to lose legal entitlement to use it. In particular, the Canonical lawyers are instructed to go after firms which use Ubuntu logos to imply fraudulent technical certifications.
In normal companies, the rule is that nobody else gets to use your logo. In Canonical, we have a policy that says that there are lots of cases where people DO get to use our name and logo; this is because our policy takes the internet-friendly view that communities need to have rights to a name if they want to feel like they are part of something; we go even further and explicitly allow the use of our name for elements of satire and mirth around Ubuntu.
While blaming it on the intern is never a very noble thing to do, Shuttleworth does say that a company review has taken place to ensure trademark law is never applied in this way again.
In other Shuttleworth-related news this morning, there’s quite an interesting interview over at the Financial Times on a completely different subject – his eco-tourism project on the African island of Principe. Well worth reading.