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.