What’s in a name?

Over the summer, there was a bit of a tussle at the highest level of Ubuntu governance over whether or not Canonical Ltd., the company that funds the majority of work done directly in Ubuntu, should name its file syncing and backup service Ubuntu One.

Canonical’s service involved a freely licensed client included in the Ubuntu distribution but, as a network service running on Canonical servers, it was not clearly a part of Ubuntu (the GNU/Linux distribution) or Ubuntu (the community) in the way the term was usually used within the community. Although the network service itself was not Franklin Street Statement free, this was not the most important issue for everyone who objected to the name. The major issue for many seemed to boil down to the fact that, free or not, Ubuntu One is a service run entirely by Canonical outside the reaches of the Ubuntu governance structures.

Decisions were made and not everybody — and maybe not anybody — was absolutely happy with the outcome. My goal is not try to revive old arguments here. As far as I’m concerned, the issues are settled and the service is called Ubuntu One. That said, the questions raised during the episode are fundamental to Ubuntu and to other firm-sponsored FLOSS projects. Now that the dust has settled, they are worth reflecting on.

From a legal perspective, there never was any ambiguity. Canonical "owns" the Ubuntu trademark. In this important sense, "Ubuntu" means whatever Canonical says it means. This is hardly new. As just one example, the Official Ubuntu Book (of which I am an author) was written by community members but became official because Canonical blessed it. But despite the fact that they don’t need to, Canonical has often consulted with the community and its governance structures about trademark licensing policy.

This was also not a case of Canonical not listening to the community. Canonical employees approached the Ubuntu Community Council (Ubuntu’s highest governance board of which I am a member), listened carefully to concerns, and responded thoughtfully.

The question was not even about a clash between what Canonical and the CC thought about the issue. An unambiguous majority of the board, including all the Canonical employees and several of the community members, supported the idea of Canonical using the trademark.

The question was one about who gets to make the decisions about the Ubuntu name and about what role the community and Canonical would each play. Despite the fact that a majority of the Ubuntu community council was likely to support the proposed name, the CC was told by Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth that a vote was irrelevant. Canonical made it clear that decisions about the Ubuntu trademark were simply not in the CC’s purview. The decision on how the name was to be used was something that Canonical was not willing to delegate to an "outside" (the firm) governance body. Few businesses would. And although I don’t agree with the decision as a community representative, I might have even made the same call from Canonical’s shoes.

In traditional firms, it’s usually pretty clear where the organization’s boundary lies. In FLOSS projects — and especially in FLOSS project like Ubuntu who are sponsored in very large part by a single for-profit company — boundaries are fuzzier. The conversation about "Ubuntu One" can be seen as a fight over what "Ubuntu" refers to, and, more importantly, who gets to answer that question. In deciding whether to call a service "Ubuntu", a decision is made on what Ubuntu is. Names are powerful.

Is Ubuntu just a Canonical project? Are Ubuntu’s contributors really just Canonical contributors by proxy? I think the answer to both questions is "no" but the boundary issues involved are complicated and under constant negotiation. Every time Canonical uses the Ubuntu name itself or grants others the ability to do so, these boundary issues are negotiated, one way or another.

This boundary setting work reveals an important tension that firms releasing FLOSS must all struggle with. To what extent and in what ways do communities get to decide what a FLOSS project is and to what extent do sponsoring firms get to do so? How should projects and firms do this most effectively? What should we even be optimizing for?

I think that any resulting balance has a huge effect on whether a FLOSS project is, on one hand, released under a free license but run like any old corporate project or, on the other, a true "bazaar" style project where no single firm dominates — or where they fall on that spectrum. Names and trademarks are one way that projects define their own identities and act as an important frontier in this balancing act. As every firm/project negotiates their own answers to questions of names and boundaries, there are important implications for the project’s ability to attract volunteers, solicit contributions from other firms, and more. The confusion around conversations about Ubuntu One shows that we still have a lot to learn.

Published by

Benjamin Mako Hill

Rebel with rather too many causes. And your host!

11 thoughts on “What’s in a name?”

  1. I agree–the uproar over the Ubuntu One name was heated and in many ways unconstructive.  I think it was a stark reminder to some people that Canonical is a business and, well, Ubuntu is serious business.

    I know that the Ubuntu One file-syncing service has been incredibly useful and helpful to me over the past six months, and I am very hopeful that it will become a major selling point of Ubuntu.  A well-run third-party service like Ubuntu One can be a huge benefit to the distro, just like the Official Ubuntu Book has proven to be.

  2. I think you’re kind of side-stepping the issue here.

    Canonical makes a public commitment that “Ubuntu” will always be free software. Then they create a product called “Ubuntu One” which isn’t free software (if it would go into Debian it would actually go under the contrib section). The product is clearly misleading and it’s Canonical’s way of locking people into its services, and to be honest I resent them a little for that. I want them to be successful and make money, but what they’re doing here is manipulating free software to promote their non-free software, there must be a better way to do it.

  3. Jonathan: actually the client would go to Debian main rather than contrib (IIRC it is FLOSS). There are plenty of apps in Debian main to interface with proprietary servers.

  4. Thanks for posting this highly quotable exposition of the key issues /after/ I finished writing about this for a Mediation and Negotiation class.

    I think, however, like Jonathan, that the non-free aspect of the server software is more important than you let on.  If everything was free from the beginning, this would have been a non-issue.  The non-free nature of the software was in some ways the condition of the possibility of the dispute.  Put another way, it was a “revealing error.”  Without the error, the underlying issue never would have been revealed.

  5. I understand there is value in the Ubuntu brand… and Canonical wants to be able to take some of that brand value and turn it into a revenue stream that helps sustain the Ubuntu project itself.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

    However, I think its short sighted to use the Ubuntu name for a service offering that has the potential for cross-platform support to be a revenue generating feature. 


  6. Steven: If I had known, I would have posted it earlier!

    Jonathan and Steven: I wasn’t trying to devalue the freedom issue. I still think that’s hugely important and probably even more important to me personally. That’s why I work on autonomo.us and address these issues directly in a variety of other places.

    The Ubuntu One debate had another dimension, and I wanted to focus in on that for this post. You’ll hear lots more from me on the topic of non-free services in the future.

  7. Mako, I’m somewhat surprised by your
    post.  I don’t think the issue is as
    subtle or nuanced as you seem to be
    claiming. Canonical has gone to great
    lengths to build a community around
    their Ubuntu brand, and has been wildly
    successful.  To then use that brand to
    market something that is largely
    unacceptable to that community is very
    disrespectful.  Of course it’s within
    Canonical’s right to use their trademark
    however they see fit, but I suspect that
    most volunteer contributers did not
    expect their contributions to be used to
    market non-free software.  You state
    that you might have done the same thing
    that canonical did regarding the
    trademark, if you were in their shoes,
    but I don’t think that’s really the
    case.  You wouldn’t have had this issue
    in the first place, because you wouldn’t
    have kept Ubuntu One closed and
    restricted.  The root of the whole issue
    is that Canonical seems to be saying
    “Free software is great! Please write
    more of it so we can use it to attract
    more users to our proprietary software!”

  8. So you’re right Noah. I wouldn’t have gotten into the same situation as Canonical for the reasons you suggest. I’m opposed to Ubuntu One for reasons that go well beyond the subtle issues I brought up and that, honestly, I think are more important.

    But I pointed out that a majority of the Ubuntu CC was alright with the idea. We had open calls for comments and the majority of comments from the community were neutral or positive. A few community members opposed the idea vigorously, but it really was only a few. The more important concerns you and I share didn’t seem to be as present in the discussion within the Ubuntu community. I know; I was looking for and even encouraging them. I still opposed it, but I was in a very clear minority even of the non-Canonical folk.

    Maybe that’s because most folks knew what they were getting into when they joined up with Ubuntu. Maybe it’s because Ubuntu just hasn’t pushed free software philosophy as much as it should and few of its members share this.

    The thing that upset me was not that Canonical took advantage of the goodwill the community had created but that the community had no control and no say. That may sound subtle but the point is profound. Ubuntu is a community who does not have basic ability to determine what it is because Canonical will not let them. That’s perhaps a more stinging indictment than it may seem.

  9. See also Sun’s use of OpenSolaris to describe the binary distribution as well as open source project. As well as plenty of flameage, it resulted in Roy Fielding’s resignation from the OpenSolaris Governing Board because it didn’t the Apache-like independence he was promised.

  10. Sorry for delay in responding. Benjamin, software that /only/ interfaces with proprietary software interfaces with contrib. Afaik there aren’t any free software server software you can use with the Ubuntu One client.

  11. I think one takeaway from this whole debacle is that the Ubuntu Community site, <http://www.ubuntu.com/community>, needs to be updated so that the following information is more prominent:

    1) A clear explanation of the Ubuntu Trademark and an explanation of how decisions of the use of the Ubuntu Trademark are made.

    2) A link to this bug <https://bugs.launchpad.net/ubuntu/+bug/377005&gt;, and it should include the following quote from Mark Shuttleworth.

    “The people who make up the Ubuntu community are entirely free to devote their energy to whatever path they think will serve their interests best – and that has always been the case. I suspect most people in this community are drawn here precisely because of the interdependency between project and company. And those who don’t may well be drawn to something which flows as a direct consequence of that.

      There are several distributions which make a point of having no corporate backer. The people who want that, specifically, are probably already there, happily doing good work. People who want something else are wherever they think they can find that, happily doing good work. Some people may change their mind and move in either direction. But Ubuntu and Canonical were born together, with a shared mission. If that’s interesting to you, then participate in Ubuntu. If it’s not, then don’t.”

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