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Official Ubuntu images and trademarks

Last week, the issue of Ubuntu trademarks raised its head once again, due to some claims from some service providers that they’re being told they have to pay for the right to distribute Ubuntu.

Is that what’s really going on though?

The Canonical trademark policy

Canonical, the company that created, funds and sells support for the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution, controls the Ubuntu trademarks and defends them somewhat aggressively.

They allow the use of the Ubuntu trademarks as long as the thing you are distributing really is Ubuntu. Which means, you can’t just make your own modifications and pass it off as Ubuntu.

RedHat do the same1 and use the same mechanism to limit redistribution of RedHat Enterprise Linux. Mozilla do similar.

Ubuntu’s reputation

Despite some arguably muddy waters, at the core of all this there is some value. The Ubuntu (and RedHat et al.) distro has a reputation; if you modify it you risk affecting that reputation.

Do you trust every service provider to make only sane modifications to distro install images? Anyone paying any attention knows there is a long history of providers breaking Ubuntu (and other distros). The security issues they create are usually the higher profile mistakes that we hear about, but there are plenty of others.

As far as Ubuntu’s trademark policy goes, if you’re redistributing unmodified versions of Ubuntu then you’re safe, no matter what a sales person might tell you.

Canonical support

Also, Canonical sell support for Ubuntu and expect things to be in a certain place. If a service provider creates their own image, then it’s not standard and the Canonical support team struggle to assist customers (we’ve heard from techies at Canonical that this is a particular problem with cloud installations). This makes them look bad and makes their job difficult.

Remember that the core of Canonical’s business model is selling support for Ubuntu, and that’s what funds their work on Ubuntu.

Official Ubuntu images

And finally, Ubuntu make life easy for service providers by providing official cloud image builds, all geared up to bootstrap themselves in various virtualized environments on start-up, which anyone can import and use (we do so daily). They really go the extra mile to ensure Ubuntu works well in the cloud.

It should make you wonder why these service providers feel the need to modify the images in the first place.

So the choice isn’t really between paying Canonical for a support contract or stop distributing Ubuntu. Another option is to distribute only unmodified versions of Ubuntu. Which is arguably something users should be demanding.

We’re a Canonical partner

We actually chose to partner with Canonical back in 2014 and pay them a cut of all our Ubuntu-related cloud server revenue, but that decision was not about trademarks. We were using the official unmodified images long before our partnership agreement began.

Being a partner of Canonical gets us commercial support from them. This gets us more attention on our bug reports, but also an SLA for various things, marketing support and more.

It also helps fund Ubuntu.

  1. RedHat make it easy to remove its trademarks. Canonical do not. Free software developer Matthew Garrett has some harsh words about their IP policy in general. ↩

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