Kubuntu's founder resigns, accuses Canonical of defrauding donors and violating copyright

kubuntu
Credit: Manual Cernuda

It’s the end of an era over at Kubuntu.

Jonathan Riddell—who founded Kubuntu a decade ago—has stepped down as release manager and will be headed upstream to KDE. This comes after a lengthy period of spats between Riddell and the Ubuntu Community Council. On Reddit, Riddell punctuated his resignation by once again accusing Canonical—the company behind Ubuntu—of defrauding donors and violating copyrights.

This is an ugly subject. Thanks to Kubuntu’s open development model, we get to see a lot of the ugliness that would normally happen behind closed doors.

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The resignation

Jonathan Riddell resigned as release manager shortly after Kubuntu 15.10 was released. The official announcement posted to the Kubuntu website begins with a positive tone. “Making Kubuntu over the last 10 years has been a fantastic journey,” he writes. “Bringing together KDE and Ubuntu has created the best operating system we can and the best community to work on it.”

At the end of his statement, Riddell takes a turn and addresses his grievances with the Ubuntu Community Council. “Community made open source software needs people to be able to take out what they’ve put in,” he writes. “However for the last three years Ubuntu’s main sponsor Canonical has had a policy contrary to this and after much effort to try to rectify this it’s clear that isn’t going to happen.”

kde dragons ensemble Tyson Tan

Licensed under GNU LGPL version 2 and later.

The same message was posted to the Ubuntu development mailing list, but it contains an additional paragraph addressed to Ubuntu’s developers: “Ubuntu now needs to work out if it still wants to be a community made project. I’ve heard from too many people who feel they have been bullied out of the project for this to be a personal problem.”

Jonathan went even further on Reddit, saying of Canonical; “They defrauded donors and broke the copyright licenses. They are only free to do this because they’re big enough and vague enough that nobody will take it further.”

Whoa, what?

This situation has been simmering for quite some time.

In May 2015, the Ubuntu Community Council took the unprecedented step of “requesting” Riddell step down as leader of the Kubuntu project. “Over a long period of time Jonathan Riddell has become increasingly difficult to deal with. Jonathan raised valid issues and concerns, but reacted poorly when he received answers he did not agree with,” they wrote.

The Kubuntu council fought back, voting to reaffirm Riddell him on the Kubuntu council. Riddell also wrote that he was confused because he’d never had the title of “leader” of Kubuntu. The Ubuntu Community Council issued a statement further explaining the reasons for their actions, but refusing to change their minds. Scott Kitterman, who had been a Ubuntu developer since 2006, resigned, writing “This is not the Ubuntu project I joined in 2006.”

Riddell did eventually “step down,” but there was certainly tension—and a clash—between the two projects.

Donations that weren’t accounted for

Riddell’s concerns deal with donations and copyright. First, let’s start with the donations.

When you download Ubuntu, you’re asked to donate money. This webpage contains a variety of sliders you can adjust so you can provide input on what the Ubuntu project should do with that money. Riddell explained his concerns in an email to the mailing list. One of the options previously on this page was “better support for flavors.” Riddell was concerned that Kubuntu and other Ubuntu “flavors” hadn’t actually received any of this money.

The Ubuntu Community Council looked into it, and—for the period of October, 2012 to April, 2013—there was a total of $143,000 in donations gathered for the community. $47,042.42 were assigned to “flavors” via the sliders. This $143,000 wasn’t properly accounted for, and “there is no accounting of how the money was spent.” Under the current process, thankfully, the money is now properly tracked and reported. But no one knows exactly where that $143,000 of donations went.

Canonical’s IP policy

Copyrights are Riddell’s other concern. Riddell recently attempted to draw attention to this problem with the “Jonathan Riddell IP Policy.” This IP policy, posted to his blog, states that you have to give Jonathan Riddell a hug if you use any of his “intellectual property”—packages he’s uploaded to the Ubuntu archives. It also states that nothing in this policy should be taken to contradict any of the licenses in each individual package.

It’s silly, of course. Packages in the Ubuntu software archive have free software licenses that allow you to do anything you like with them, and simply compiling a package doesn’t make it your intellectual property. (At least, that’s the usual understanding—I’m not a lawyer.)

kubuntu wily werewolf

But this silliness serves to highlight Ubuntu’s own IP policy. Canonical has an “Intellectual property rights policy” that it asserts covers the Ubuntu archive. Jonathan Riddell himself walks through his complaints in a blog post. Canonical asserts that, by compiling the packages, Canonical gains copyright over the compiled form and can limit what people can do with them and require additional licenses. Matthew Garrett calls this IP policy “deliberately obfuscated” and asserts Canonical benefits from the uncertainty over whether it’s actually enforceable.

Again, I’m not a lawyer. But, traditionally, Linux distributions haven’t asserted that such a copyright exists and have let the software licenses stand alone.

The Free Software Foundation believed that this interferes with GPL rights and negotiated with Canonical for two years on this subject. Eventually, Canonical added a note was saying that the IP policy should be read with each package’s individual license to see whether it applies or does not. If a package’s license allows redistribution, Canonical’s IP policy can’t override it. But, as the FSF writes, “the policy remains problematic.”

The UCC and Kubuntu are okay now

At the end of the day, the Ubuntu Community Council and Kubuntu Council aren’t at war. A few days after Riddell resigned, the Ubuntu Community Council and Kubuntu Council issued a joint announcement:

“Members of both the Kubuntu and Community Councils have been approached by community members and asked what the relationship is between the each other. Both councils would like to confirm that the relationship is strong, and mechanisms are in place to ensure a healthy and open relationship between both councils. We would all like to point out that both councils collaborated and resolved any tensions together.”

And, with that, this chapter of Kubuntu’s history is now closed.

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