Ubuntu Membership and Contributions to Upstream Projects

There has been a lot (perhaps too much) discussion on the ubuntu-devel mailing list about (among other things) to what extent contributions to an upstream project should be taken into account when assessing whether a person’s application for Ubuntu membership should be granted.

Jonathan Carter has very properly added it to the agenda for discussion by the Community Council at their next meeting.

I’m posting my views here so that I can order them clearly, and also in case I can’t make that meeting.

There are two questions here. The first is whether upstream contributions should be taken into account when evaluating Ubuntu membership. The second is which projects are upstream projects, and which projects are part of Ubuntu. I think the first question is easy, actually, and I think people have overthought it a bit. In fact I am surprised that it is controversial at all, because I am fairly sure it has been discussed in the past. The second question is much more difficult.

First Question

Upstream contributions, whether in Canonical sponsored projects or not and whether in projects used by Ubuntu or not, should not be an important consideration when evaluating Ubuntu membership. The process is designed to convey a sense of belonging to the Ubuntu project, the privileges of which are association with the project and voting rights on certain governance initiatives in the project. For this purpose, direct contributions are the key consideration.

Drawing a line between which upstream projects have a closer association with Ubuntu and which haven’t is not a task that I would expect a membership board to have to undertake, and I think it is inappropriate. We as a project value immensely, and depend upon, upstream code and contributions for our existence. Ranking those upstream projects in order of “closeness” to the project is an impossible task: so many are crucially important. So Launchpad is an upstream project just like Debian, Gnome or the kernel. A contribution to those, while immensely valuable to Ubuntu as well as many other projects, is not a contribution to Ubuntu for the purposes of membership.

Participation in upstream projects could be tangentially relevant, in the sense that it shows an understanding of the free software community and the ability to work in a community. That can be helpful, but can never be sufficient to recognise someone as a member of the Ubuntu project on its own.

Question Two

The difficult question here is how we define projects that are Ubuntu projects, and which are upstream projects.

That is generally something that a software project will decide on its own, with the simple decision of whether it will be distributed in Ubuntu alone, or whether it will be distributed in many distributions. A key aspect is the level of integration between the project and the Ubuntu community.

The line gets slightly blurred sometimes where a project is primarily designed for Ubuntu, but also has aspirations of being distributed elsewhere. An example is Unity. Another controversial project seems to have been Ensemble/Orchestra.

Clearly the membership boards are having to take difficult decisions on this issue, and that is causing difficulties. It shouldn’t be necessary for them to have to take decisions like this. I propose that we put in place a process for clarifying the issue whenever there is uncertainty, on a case by case basis, by a referral to the Community Council. Frequently we would get the Technical Board involved as well to benefit from their greater understanding of the technical side of software projects.

So, those are my opinions on the two questions raised. I’m going to go on and give my view on the projects that have been controversial as well.


Unity is a difficult issue because Unity itself does not seem to be clear about whether it is an upstream project or not. Its Launchpad page makes out that it is an upstream project and its mailing lists are not on ubuntu.com. But its website is on ubuntu.com (albeit that it is there because of Canonical’s control of the domain, as opposed to any decision by the project itself, as far as I am aware) and has a big Ubuntu logo at the top. It uses the Ubuntu wiki. Planning decisions are discussed and decided upon at UDS. And both the latter two points are quite significant I think because they show a high level of integration with the Ubuntu community.

On that basis I’m personally of the view that Unity is part of Ubuntu.


Ensemble/Orchestra appears to have been something else which has created difficulties. I know very little about the project. I think that not knowing enough about how the project fits into the Ubuntu ecosystem is a key part of the problem. And if that’s right, what we are seeing here could be a good thing – this could improve how the rest of the Ubuntu community perceives the project and could help integration (if integration is intended). This is one of the big advantages of using project wide membership boards for granting membership, as opposed to individual sub-project Councils, and the main reason I have always been in favour of having all membership applications assessed by project wide boards (albeit that I recognise that I’ve been outvoted on such issues).

Orchestra appears to sell itself as a product for Ubuntu Server. But then again, any company could design and release a product for Ubuntu Server, and that would not necessarily mean that it is part of the Ubuntu project. What we need to see is integration with the Ubuntu community, the use of the Ubuntu wiki, and so on.

There I am slightly confused. The Orchestra wiki page is very bare, and if I go to the Ensemble wiki page I find that it redirects me to ensemble.ubuntu.com/ which looks like it is part of the Ubuntu wiki (because the theme and logo is the same) but is in fact a separate wiki. I find that difficult to understand. And again, it has a sub-domain of ubuntu.com because Canonical controls that domain. But more importantly, browsing around I find very little instructions about how to contribute to the project as a volunteer or member of the Ubuntu project.

Having said that, I can see that Dustin has stated that Orchestra is part of Ubuntu (https://lists.ubuntu.com/archives/ubuntu-devel/2011-August/033894.html) so clearly the people driving it believe that.

I think that ultimately the answer to this will also be that Orchestra is part of the Ubuntu project and a contribution to it is a contribution to Ubuntu. But I would very much like to develop a discussion further with those involved in Ensemble/Orchestra about how it fits into the Ubuntu project, and how it plans to develop a community and encourage volunteer contributions.


In my opinion:

  1. Contributions to upstream projects are not contributions to the Ubuntu project for the purposes of membership.
  2. Where it is unclear whether a project is upstream or part of Ubuntu, that can sometimes be a difficult issue which highlights a weakness in how that project defines itself, which should be clarified by the CC on a case by case basis.
  3. Unity and (albeit slightly less clearly) Ensemble/Orchestra appear to be part of the Ubuntu project, but some discussion could be beneficial about how those projects, particularly Ensemble/Orchestra, integrate with the Ubuntu project.
  4. Discussions like this are a good thing because they will improve everyone’s understanding of different parts of the project.

Canonical Copyright Assignment

Ted Gould’s debate with Bradley Kuhn and others about the Canonical Copyright Assignment Agreement (CAA) is quite illustrative and one of Ted’s remarks provides a good launching pad for me to express why I find the CAA so objectionable.

I would say that those who don’t trust Canonical to be good stewards of the project with their patch, shouldn’t assign copyright. (reference)

The ability to trust Canonical is indeed one of the problems with the CAA. Canonical does a lot of good work in the free software domain, and its work on Ubuntu is funded by philanthropic donations from its founder. These are great things, without which Ubuntu would not exist. But Canonical is not a charity, it is a company with aspirations of profitability, and contracts frequently with companies who may not have the same commitment to free software as it does. Furthermore Canonical is not only a free software company. It has non-free software in its portfolio, some of which has been placed by it into the Ubuntu namespace. For these reasons I can definitely see why some people would have trouble blindly trusting that Canonical will never use their code in proprietary software. It seems unlikely, even extremely unlikely, but not impossible. That’s particularly the case given that Canonical expressly reserves the right to do it in this clause of the CAA:

Canonical will ordinarily make the Assigned Contributions available to the public under a “Free Software Licence”, according to the definition of that term published by the Free Software Foundation from time to time. Canonical may also, in its discretion, make the Assigned Contributions available to the public under other license terms. (emphasis added)

But this is not the main problem with the CAA. The main problem is that people should not have to decide whether they are prepared to give this trust to Canonical. It is unnecessary, and inappropriate.

  • Unnecessary because there is a perfectly simple alternative solution – to include within the CAA a provision which guarantees that the assigned code will not be used in proprietary software. Other CAAs do this.
  • Also unnecessary because it is very hard to see why Canonical needs to own copyright in affected code. The stated justification on the Canonical FAQ is “Canonical both uses and distributes software around the world. We need to make sure we are legally entitled to do so with contributed code, in a way that will hold up everywhere.” Whatever other reason Canonical may have for requiring copyright assignment, that one is nonsense. Canonical doesn’t have copyright to a lot of the code which it ships in Ubuntu (because the majority of Ubuntu’s code comes from upstream) and this doesn’t affect Canonical’s ability to redistribute that code, and it does so freely. I have not seen any response which addresses this issue on any Ubuntu mailing list or on Planet Ubuntu, despite having raised it on Ubuntu’s development mailing list in January 2010.
  • Inappropriate because the individual is giving up legal rights by signing the CAA. That action means that it is for Canonical, as the recipient of those rights, to satisfy the individual that the rights will be used in the appropriate way, not the other way around.

The CAA is a legal document. As a lawyer drafting agreements on a daily basis (albeit not in this sector), I know that in such documents, it is unacceptable to leave eventualities to trust or hope. If you have a desired consequence in a specific situation, you include a provision dealing with it. I am sure that Canonical would not sign any commercial agreement which left a particular consequence down to trust.

Until these issues are resolved, I won’t be signing the Canonical CAA.

Ubuntu Documentation Project – reflections on Ubuntu 10.04 LTS

I find myself looking back on a particularly strange release cycle for the Ubuntu Documentation Project (“ubuntu-doc”).

Really the most significant thing to happen in this release cycle is the development of the Ubuntu Manual Project (“ubuntu-manual”), which is essentially a competitor to ubuntu-doc with different processes, different tools, but identical aims. That development, and our failure to convince ubuntu-manual to work with ubuntu-doc’s tools and processes, to take existing material and reuse it, and then contribute new and amended material back to ubuntu-doc, is the most abiding memory of the release cycle for me. ubuntu-manual has shown great enthusiasm, has attracted a serious number of new contributors to documentation writing, which can only be positive. I feel that it’s a great shame that we weren’t able to help channel those contributors towards a unified effort at producing documentation which reused existing material, tools, processes, and websites and which prevented reinvention of the wheel.

Having said that there have been some positives to come out of this release cycle. We’ve developed a new document (New to Ubuntu). We’ve fixed a fairly vast number of bugs (almost entirely thanks to the awesome work done by Connor Imes). Adam Sommer has continued to do a great job of maintaining the serverguide. Phil Bull and Milo Casagrande have continued to lead the development of Gnome documentation towards what is looking like a very exciting transition into Gnome 3.0 for user documentation.

The focus of the next release cycle is going to be very interesting. With a complete overhaul of user documentation at Gnome, with a much faster help viewer, a markup that is easier for writers and which encourages more topic based help that is easier for users to read, understand and find, this is a very exciting time in user documentation. I suspect that the focus of ubuntu-doc will be to contribute upstream as much as possible in the first instance, and that work is already underway. That means that this is an opportunity for ubuntu-doc to shape the direction of user help in Gnome and Ubuntu alike, and that means that it is a good time to get involved in documentation. More to come on that.

One of the focuses in terms of team management for the next release has to be on new contributors. We need to focus on ensuring that new contributors have an easy way to dive in to documentation, can see quickly what tasks need work, and aren’t blocked on contributing by anything. ubuntu-doc needs to promote itself better around the Ubuntu community, and I’m convinced that we can do that over the coming 6 months. Documentation is a great way for newcomers to the Ubuntu community to contribute if they are not interested in developing software, and I would encourage anyone interested to visit our wiki page and get in touch.

Ubuntu Hits Italian National Television (again)

In May 2008 the release of Ubuntu 8.04 LTS was reported on Italian national television (link to my blog entry). Fabio Marzocca of the Ubuntu-it community was interviewed.

Yesterday a further report was broadcast about the release of Ubuntu 9.10. This time Flavia Weisghizzi was interviewed about the new release, and did a great job: thanks Flavia!

You can watch the YouTube recording here.

One interesting thing about the report is how heavily they focus on the Koala as the mascot of the release. Ubuntu generally takes the view that its release mascots are used only during the development phase, and that the final version when released should be referred to by its version number (Ubuntu 9.10, in this case). However the way that the programme focused on the image of the Koala demonstrates that people will find it easy to associate with such mascots.

Ubuntu updates

  • I’m really pleased to have been elected to continue as a member of the Community Council for the next two years. I genuinely wasn’t expecting to be reelected with so many great candidates to choose from, so I will do my best to repay the trust of those who have voted. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that the CC is functioning as an efficient governance body for the ever expanding Ubuntu community, and the creation of a larger CC is going to be very important to that. We’re welcoming three new members: Alan Pope, Elizabeth Krumbach and Richard Johnson, and they will bring a lot to the CC, especially experience from different areas of the community. I’m particularly pleased to welcome Elizabeth, who aside from being an awesome Ubuntu contributor as an individual, will bring some representation from the Ubuntu Women team to the CC, which is important. We’re saying goodbye to James Troup, who has been a really important member of the CC since its beginning. I’m personally sorry to see him go. Thanks James for your work.
  • The Ubuntu-it community is reaching its four year anniversary on 10 October. l3on has knocked up a great banner which will be resplendent on the homepage for the next few days. It’s been great to have been a part of the inception of this community which continues to grow in positive directions. The next year will be an important year in that community and again there is plenty of work to do to ensure that it can grow in a healthy way and to take Italian adoption and technical support of Ubuntu to the next level.

IRC absence

Really long time no blog… I keep meaning to get back in touch and write an update post but have just been too busy!

So this is just a quick note to say that I’m not around so much on IRC these days. Unfortunately my server provider dreamhost, while excellent in many other ways, has cracked down on the use of IRC programs such as irssi on their servers and I’m no longer able to use it to connect to IRC. Previously I had been connected around the clock, but now that I’m going to have to use my home connection to connect,I won’t be connected around the clock because my home connection is extremely unreliable, due in part (I think) to a dodgy router and in part to a flaky connection. Until that’s sorted out, I’m likely to be disconnected from IRC for long periods of time.

So, if you need to contact me and don’t see me on IRC, please use email.

[EDIT] Following my post I had three offers of free hosting for connecting to IRC. I’m really grateful to those people for their generosity which took me by surprise, and I’ve taken up Alan Pope‘s offer. So I’m now back on reliable IRC! Thank to Alan and the others who offered their help.

6 Peaks Challenge – update

I recently posted about the Water Aid 6 Peaks Challenge that I am taking part in. The challenge starts this Friday, 4 July 2008.

The fundraising effort is going well – we have now raised over £3000 towards our target of £4000 for Water Aid! However we need more support, so please donate if you can.

I’ll try and report progress with the Challenge here! Meanwhile if anyone has any last minute tips for avoiding blisters and generally staying in one piece, post here!

Water Aid 6 Peaks Challenge – appeal for sponsorship!

As some may know I have entered, together with a team from my company, Holman Fenwick Willan, in this July’s Water Aid 6 Peaks Challenge.

This is a challenge to visit the summits of the highest peaks in each of the six regions of the British Isles, all within 72 hours: Snaefell (Isle of Man), Snowdon (Wales), Scafell Pike (England), Ben Nevis (Scotland), Slieve Donard (Ulster) and Corran Tuathail (Republic of Ireland). The walking amounts to a total of 50 miles with climbs of 20,000 feet, two sea crossings, not to mention 1,000 miles of driving in our trusty camper van. In 72 hours…

Our team is made up of 6 walkers and 2 drivers.

The challenge is in aid of a very worthy charity, Water Aid, and we have undertaken to raise the very significant sum of £4000.

We would be very glad of your support, which can be given at our Just Giving website page.

The more donations we receive, the more inspired we will be in our training! Please also feel free to pass these details directly onto any family, friends, colleagues or total strangers who you think may be interested in supporting us in this challenge.

More efficient Ubuntu membership approval process

The Community Council has recently implemented some changes to community governance processes which it believes reflect a significant improvement in one area of community governance: applications for Ubuntu membership.

The Ubuntu project is rapidly expanding and the previous process for approval of new Ubuntu members has been struggling to keep up with the increased participation. The list of pending membership applications was so long that the Community Council cannot focus on other issues. Also, it is often difficult or impossible for potential new members to attend Community Council meetings which do not coincide with their availability in a particular timezone.

As a result three regional membership boards have been created to consider applications from contributors to the project for Ubuntu membership. The boards are:

  • Americas
  • Europe, Middle East and Africa
  • Asia / Oceania

These boards will meet each week at staggered times and days, to ensure that as many candidates as possible have a chance to attend a meeting which fits their schedules. If necessary, candidates from one region may attend a meeting of a board for a different region, if this suits their schedule better.

The Community Council will continue to oversee the process for the first few months of its operation. New members will be reported in the Ubuntu Weekly Newsletter.

For more information, and if you are interested in applying for Ubuntu membership, please visit the membership wiki page.

The change will leave the Community Council free to take a more active role in its review of other aspects of the community. The Community Council now meets according to a fixed timetable every two weeks.

Ubuntu hits mainstream Italian television

Seriously long time no blog… life has been incredibly busy recently.

Ubuntu appeared on Italian terrestrial television yesterday, by way of a short piece on the program “Neapolis”, broadcast by RAI 3. RAI 3 is a state run television channel in Italy, and is popular for having plenty of interesting programs on culture and current events.

Congratulations to the members of the Italian local community team who made this possible: Fabio Marzocca (who appears in the clip), Milo Casagrande and Flavia Weisghizzi.

Watch the clip here (Italian language).