July 14, 2006

Ubuntu open to aiding derivative distributions

Author: Bruce Byfield

Matt Zimmerman has responded to a recent NewsForge article that suggests that the maintainers of derivative distributions are unintentionally violating the requirements of the GNU General Public License (GPL). Ubuntu's technical leader says the project may be able to help.

The article revealed that many distributions' maintainers were erroneously assuming that they did not need to provide source repositories for packages they did not modify, so long as the original upstream distribution did provide the source code. This responsibility is by no means new, but seems to have been widely overlooked. David Turner, GPL compliance officer at the Free Software Foundation, suggested that these distros might come into compliance by making some arrangement with the upstream supplier.

Turner's suggestion was rejected by Max Spevack, Fedora Board chair, partly because of the possible expense, but chiefly because it might encourage forking and leave the upstream distribution open to legal liability for the downstream one.

By contrast, Zimmerman suggests that Ubuntu might consider coming to an arrangement with the derivative distributions. "It's less clear to me whether a legal agreement with the upstream distributor could satisfy this requirement," Zimmerman says, talking about the obligation to provide source code for everything that a distro ships, "but given that Ubuntu is already obligated
to continue to distribute source code for as long as we distribute binaries, it's possible that we could offer that kind of assistance if it would help."

According to Henrik Nilsen Omma, a lead developer of Xubuntu, a Ubuntu derivative that uses the Xfce4 window manager for a desktop, Ubuntu currently supports two types of derivative distributions: siblings and independents. Sibling distributions are ones that maintain direct ties to Ubuntu, such as Kubuntu, Edubuntu, and Xubuntu. These distributions are so closely related to Ubuntu that some, including Jonathan Riddell, the lead Kubuntu developer, do not consider them separate distributions at all. These distributions share Ubuntu's main repository, and, like Ubuntu, are sponsored by Canonical, the private company behind Ubuntu, which also holds their trademarks. The siblings also subscribe to Ubuntu's core philosophy, and, according to Riddell, share resources and work closely with each other to ensure sure that they do not break each other's packages and to release new versions at the same time.

Independent distributions have looser ties with Ubuntu. Although they use Ubuntu packages as their starting point, they maintain their own repositories, and may have goals and principles that are not shared by Ubuntu -- for instance, some may choose to ship with proprietary drivers or productivity software. Independent distributions tend, too, to have separate communities of developers and users from Ubuntu. Many, such as MEPIS, ImpiLinux, and Arabian Linux, are derivatives of Kubuntu, Ubuntu's longest established sibling distribution.

What Zimmerman apparently has in mind is the creation of more sibling distributions. "In Ubuntu," Zimmerman says, "we fully intend to build and maintain infrastructure to support the efforts of derivative distributions. We will work closely with them and make our infrastructure available for their distribution. There are already examples of this, namely Kubuntu, Edubuntu, and Xubuntu. All of these are distributed from the same software archive as Ubuntu, which means that the responsibilities for distributing source code are shared. This [arrangement] allows derivatives to focus on their specific areas of interest, and not concern themselves with most of the business of building the complete product."

If interactions with existing sibling distributions are any indication, such an arrangement might involve agreeing to support Ubuntu's philosophy, but most members of the free and open source software communities are likely to have little trouble with such a requirement. Zimmerman did not specify whether the arrangement might involve assigning trademarks to Canonical. However, even if it does, many small distributions might find the arrangement preferable to maintaining their own source repositories -- a task that most of those who have actually done it agree is onerous. If nothing else, the arrangement would allow the maintainers of derivative distributions to focus on development rather than compliance.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.

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