Canonical, Ltd. Finally On Record: Seeking Open Core

Sunday 17 October 2010 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I've written before about my deep skepticism regarding the true motives of Canonical, Ltd.'s advocacy and demand of for-profit corporate copyright assignment without promises to adhere to copyleft. I've often asked Canonical employees, including Jono Bacon, Amanda Brock, Jane Silber, Mark Shuttleworth himself, and — in the comments of this very blog postMatt Asay to explain (a) why exactly they demand copyright assignment on their projects, rather than merely having contributors agree to the GNU GPL formally (like projects such as Linux do), and (b) why, having received a contributor's copyright assignment, Canonical, Ltd. refuses to promise to keep the software copylefted and never proprietarize it (FSF, for example, has always done the latter in assignments). When I ask these questions of Canonical, Ltd. employees, they invariably artfully change the subject.

I've actually been asking these questions for at least a year and a half, but I really began to get worried earlier this year when Mark Shuttleworth falsely claimed that Canonical, Ltd.'s copyright assignment was no different than the FSF's copyright assignment. That event made it clear to me that there was a job of salesmanship going on: Canonical, Ltd. was trying to sell something to community that the community doesn't want nor need, and trying to reuse the good name of other people and organizations to do it.

Since that interview in February, Canonical, Ltd. has launched a manipulatively named product called “Project Harmony”. They market this product as a “summit” of sorts — purported to have no determined agenda other than to discuss the issue of contributor agreements and copyright assignment, and come to a community consensus on this. Their goal, however, was merely to get community members to lend their good names to the process. Indeed, Canonical, Ltd. has oft attempted to use the involvement of good people to make it seem as if Canonical, Ltd.'s agenda is endorsed by many. In fact, FSF recently distanced itself from the process because of Canonical, Ltd.'s actions in this regard. Simon Phipps had similarly distanced himself before that.

Nevertheless, it seems Canonical, Ltd. now believes that they've succeed in their sales job, because they've now confessed their true motive. In an IRC Q&A session last Thursday0, Shuttleworth finally admits that his goal is to increase the amount of “Open Core” activity. Specifically, Shuttleworth says at 15:21 (and following):

[C]ompare Qt and Gtk, Qt has a contribution agreement, Gtk doesn't, for a while, back in the bubble, Sun, Red Hat, Ximian and many other companies threw money at Gtk and it grew and improved very quickly but, then they lost interest, and it has stagnated. Qt was owned by Trolltech it was open source (GPL) but because of the contribution agreement they had many options including proprietary licensing, which is just fine with me alongside the GPL and later, because they owned Qt completely, they were an attractive acquisition for Nokia, All in all, the Qt ecosystem has benefitted and the Gtk ecosystem hasn't.

It takes some careful analysis to parse what's going on here. First of all, Shuttleworth is glossing over a lot of complicated Qt history. Qt started with a non-FaiF license (QPL), which later became a GPL-incompatible Free Software license. After a few years of this oddball, license-proliferation-style software freedom license, Trolltech stumbled upon the “Open Core” model (likely inspired by MySQL AB), and switched to GPL. When Nokia bought Trolltech, Nokia itself discovered that full-on “Open Core” was bad for the code base, and (as I heralded at the time) relicensed the codebase to LGPL (the same license used by Gtk). A few months after that, Nokia abandoned copyright assignment completely for Qt as well! (I.e., Shuttleworth is just wrong on this point entirely.) In fact, Shuttleworth, rather than supporting his pro-Open-Core argument, actually gave the prime example of Nokia/TrollTech's lesson learned: “don't do an Open-Core-style contributor agreement, you'll regret it”. (RMS also recently published a good essay on this subject).

Furthermore, Shuttleworth also ignores completely plenty of historical angst in communities that rely on Qt, which often had difficulty getting bugfixes upstream and other such challenges when dealing with a for-profit controlled “Open Core” library. (These were, in fact, among the reasons Nokia gave in May 2009 for the change in policy). Indeed, if the proprietary relicensing business is what made Trolltech such a lucrative acquisition for Nokia, why did they abandon the business model entirely within four months of the acquisition?

Although, Shuttleworth's “lucrative acquisition” point has some validity. Namely, “Open Core” makes wealthy, profit-driven types (e.g., VCs) drool. Meanwhile, people like me, Simon Phipps, NASA's Chris Kemp, John Mark Walker, Tarus Balog and many others are either very skeptical about “Open Core”, or dead-set against it. The reason it's meeting with so much opposition is because “Open Core” is a VC-friendly way to control all the copyright “assets” while pretending to actually have the goal of building an Open Source community. The real goal of “Open Core”, of course, is a bait-and-switch move. (Details on that are beyond the scope of this post and well covered in the links I've given.)

As to Shuttleworth's argument of Gtk stagnation, after my trip this past summer to GUADEC, I'm quite convinced that the GNOME community is extremely healthy. Indeed, as Dave Neary's GNOME Census shows, the GNOME codebases are well-contributed to by various corporate entities and (more importantly) volunteers. For-profit corporate folks like Shuttleworth and his executives tend not to like communities where a non-profit (in this case, the GNOME Foundation) shepherds a project and keeps the multiple for-profit interests at bay. In fact, he dislikes this so much that when GNOME was recently documenting its long standing copyright policies, he sent Silber to the GNOME Advisory Board (the first and only time Canonical, Ltd. sent such a high profile person to the Advisory Board) to argue against the long-standing GNOME community preference for no copyright assignment on its projects1. Silber's primary argument was that it was unreasonable for individual contributors to even ask to keep their own copyrights, since Canonical, Ltd. puts in the bulk of the work on their projects that require copyright assignment. Her argument was, in other words, an anti-software-freedom equality argument: a for-profit company is more valuable to the community than the individual contributor. Fortunately, GNOME Foundation didn't fall for this, continued its work with Intel to get the Clutter codebase free of copyright assignment (and that work has since succeeded). It's also particularly ironic that, a few months later, Neary showed that the very company making that argument contributes 22% less to the GNOME codebase than the volunteers Silber once argued don't contribute enough to warrant keeping their copyrights.

So, why have Shuttleworth and his staff been on a year-long campaign to convince everyone to embrace “Open Core” and give up all their rights that copyleft provides? Well, in the same IRC log (at 15:15) I quoted above, Shuttleworth admits that he has some work left to do to make Canonical, Ltd. profitable. And therein lies the connection: Shuttleworth admits Canonical, Ltd.'s profitability is a major goal (which is probably obvious). Then, in his next answer, he explains at great length how lucrative and important “Open Core” is. We should accept “Open Core”, Shuttleworth argues, merely because it's so important that Canonical, Ltd. be profitable.

Shuttleworth's argument reminds me of a story that Michael Moore (who famously made the documentary Roger and Me, and has since made other documentaries) told at a book-signing in the mid-1990s. Moore said (I'm paraphrasing from memory here, BTW):

Inevitably, I end up on planes next to some corporate executive. They look at me a few times, and then say: Hey, I know you, you're Roger Moore [audience laughs]. What I want to know, is what the hell have you got against profit? What's wrong with profit, anyway? The answer I give is simple: There's nothing wrong with profit at all. The question I'm raising is: What lengths are acceptable to achieve profit? We all agree that we can't exploit child labor and other such things, even if that helps profitability. Yet, once upon a time, these sorts of horrible policies were acceptable for corporations. So, my point is that we still need more changes to balance the push for profit with what's right for workers.

I quote this at length to make it abundantly clear: I'm not opposed to Canonical, Ltd. making a profit by supporting software freedom. I'm glad that Shuttleworth has contributed a non-trivial part of his personal wealth to start a company that employs many excellent FLOSS developers (and even sometimes lets those developers work on upstream projects). But the question really is: Are the values of software freedom worth giving up merely to make Canonical, Ltd. profitable? Should we just accept that proprietary network services like UbuntuOne, integrated on nearly every menu of the desktop, as reasonable merely because it might help Canonical, Ltd. make a few bucks? Do we think we should abandon copyleft's assurances of fair treatment to all, and hand over full proprietarization powers on GPL'd software to for-profit companies, merely so they can employ a few FLOSS developers to work primarily on non-upstream projects?

I don't think so. I'm often critical of Red Hat, but one thing they do get right in this regard is a healthy encouragement of their developers to start, contribute to, and maintain upstream projects that live in the community rather than inside Red Hat. Red Hat currently allows its engineers to keep their own copyrights and license them under whatever license the upstream project uses, binding them to the terms of the copyleft licenses (when the upstream project is copylefted). For projects generated inside Red Hat, after experimenting with the sorts of CLAs that I'm complaining about, they learned from the mistake and corrected it (although unfortunately, Red Hat hasn't universally corrected the problem). For the most part, Red Hat encourages outside contributors to give under their own copyright under the outbound license Red Hat chose for its projects (some of which are also copylefted). Red Hat's newer policies have some flaws (details of which are beyond the scope of this post), but it's orders of magnitude better than the copyright assignment intimidation tactics that other companies, like Canonical, Ltd., now employ.

So, don't let a friendly name like “Harmony” fool you. Our community has some key infrastructure, such as the copyleft itself, that actually keeps us harmonious. Contributor agreements aren't created equal, and therefore we should oppose the idea that contributor and assignment agreements should be set to the lowest common denominator to enable a for-profit corporate land-grab that Shuttleworth and other “Open Core” proponents seek. I also strongly advise the organizations and individuals who are assisting Canonical, Ltd. in this goal to stop immediately, particularly now that Shuttleworth has announced his “Open Core” plans.

Update (2010-10-18): In comments, many people have, quite correctly, argued that I have not proved that Canonical, Ltd. has plans to go “Open Core” with their copyright-assigned copyleft products. Such comments are correct; I intended this article to be an opinion piece, not a logical proof. I further agree that without absolute proof, the title of this blog post is an exaggeration. (I didn't change it, as that seemed disingenuous after the fact).

Anyway, to be clear, the only thing the chain of events described above prove is that Canonical, Ltd. wants “Open Core” as a possibility for the future. That part is trivially true: if they didn't want to reserve the possibility, they'd simply make a promise-back to keep the software as Free Software in their assignment. The only reason not to make an FSF-style promise-back is that you want to reserve the possibility of proprietary relicensing.

Meanwhile, even though I cannot construct a logical proof of it, I still believe the only possible explanation for this 1+ year marketing campaign described above is that Canonical, Ltd. is moving toward “Open Core” for those projects on which they are the sole copyright holder. I have asked others to offer alternative explanations of why Canonical, Ltd. is carrying out this campaign: I agree that there could exist another logical explanation other than the one I've presented. If someone can come up with one, then I would be happy to link to it here.

Finally, if Canonical, Ltd. comes out with a statement that they'll switch to using FSF's promise-back in their assignments, I will be very happy to admit I was wrong. The outcome I want is for individual developers to be treated right by corporations in control of particular codebases; I would much rather that happen than be correct in my opinions.

0I originally credited OMG Ubuntu as publishing Shutleworth's comments as an interview. Their reformatting of his comments temporarily confused me, and I thought they'd done an interview. Thanks to @gotunandan who pointed this out.

1Ironically, the debate had nothing to do with a Canonical, Ltd. codebase, since their contributions amount to so little (1%) of the GNOME codebase anyway. The debate was about the Clutter/Intel situation, which has since been resolved.

Responses Not In the Identica Thread:

  • Alex Hudson's blog post
  • Discussion on Hacker News
  • LWN comments
  • Matt Aslett's response and my response to him
  • Ingolf Schaefer's blog post, which only allows comments with a Google Account, so I comment below instead (to be clear, I'm not criticizing Ingolf's choice of Google-account-to-comment, especially since I make everyone who wants to comment here sign up for ;):

    Ingolf, you noted that you'd rather I not try to read between the lines to deduce that proprietary relicensing and/or “Open Core” is where Canonical, Ltd.'s marketing is leading. I disagree; I think it's useful to consider what seems a likely end-outcome here. My primary goal is to draw attention to it now in hopes of preventing it from happening. My best possible outcome is that I get proved wrong, and Canonical makes a promise-back in their assignment and/or CLA.

    Meanwhile, I don't think they can go “Open Core” and/or proprietary relicensing for all of Ubuntu, as you are saying. They aren't sole copyright holder in most of Ubuntu. The places where they can pursue these options is in Launchpad, pbuilder, upstart, and the other projects that require CLA and/or assignment.

    I don't know for sure that they'll do this, as I say above. I can deduce no other explanation. As I keep saying, if someone else has another possible explanation for Canonical, Ltd.'s behavior that I list above, I'm happy to link to it here. I can't see any other reason; they'd surely by now just made an FSF-style promise-back in their CLA if they didn't want to hold proprietarization as a possibility.

Posted on Sunday 17 October 2010 at 11:30 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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