Suppose somebody downloaded a Linux distro, like Ubuntu. Suppose further modify one piece of it, say the Window Manager.

Would it be perfectly legal for them to sell copies of this slightly modified version of Ubuntu (let's call it Mubuntu = Modified Ubuntu)?

What if they made the new window manager portion closed source? Would it still be legal to sell?

  • 17
    I think it would even be legal to sell unmodified versions of Linux, you'd just need to include all the source and it wouldn't be particularly profitable (why buy something that's free elsewhere?).
    – Centimane
    Sep 7, 2016 at 20:00
  • 4
    This is a case @KhirgiyMikhail described. One of good samples - RedHat. They sell their RHEL. To be precise, they sell support to enterprise level customers
    – Serge
    Sep 7, 2016 at 20:17
  • 1
    @Serge The RHEL repos would be publicly available so that people can use the online repos for installing/updating software (it would suck if yum install $package had you login to the RHEL customer portal). It's open availability would be for the sake of their users, at the expense of protecting their product. (so it doesn't disprove that it's proprietary)
    – Centimane
    Sep 7, 2016 at 20:35
  • 21
    Back before broadband internet was widely available there were companies in the business of selling CDs with a copy of a linux distro on them for the benefit of people not willing to spend a day downloading it via dialup internet. Sep 7, 2016 at 20:43
  • 10
    Would this question not be better suited to opensource.stackexchange.com or law.stackexchange.com?
    – kojiro
    Sep 8, 2016 at 1:11

4 Answers 4


Would it be perfectly legal for them to sell copies of this slightly modified version of Ubuntu (let's call it Mubuntu = Modified Ubuntu)?

No. While the software licenses may allow you to do this, the trademark license does not:

Any redistribution of modified versions of Ubuntu must be approved, certified or provided by Canonical if you are going to associate it with the Trademarks. Otherwise you must remove and replace the Trademarks and will need to recompile the source code to create your own binaries. This does not affect your rights under any open source licence applicable to any of the components of Ubuntu. If you need us to approve, certify or provide modified versions for redistribution you will require a licence agreement from Canonical, for which you may be required to pay. For further information, please contact us (as set out below).


You will require Canonical’s permission to use: (i) any mark ending with the letters UBUNTU or BUNTU which is sufficiently similar to the Trademarks or any other confusingly similar mark, and (ii) any Trademark in a domain name or URL or for merchandising purposes.

You would be allowed to sell an unmodified version of Ubuntu, you would be allowed to sell a heavily modified version of Ubuntu that no longer mentions the Ubuntu name, but for this slightly modified version of Ubuntu, you need an agreement with Canonical.

  • 2
    Until the learn that it is preferable to the word guilty, followed by a big fine :-) Yup, you are correct
    – Mawg
    Sep 8, 2016 at 12:07
  • 4
    I would also mention that other distros do not necessarily have these trademark issues.
    – Gilles
    Sep 8, 2016 at 15:23
  • 6
    This part of Canonical's claim is false: "and will need to recompile the source code to create your own binaries." If they're actually trying to impose that condition on binaries of GPL'd software, they're infringing. They cannot limit your ability to copy and distribute binaries as long as you follow the terms of the GPL. Sep 8, 2016 at 20:29
  • 3
    The answer is overall correct that you cannot advertise the resulting product as Ubuntu (or using modified versions of the trademark), but if Ubuntu is claiming they can bypass the GPL by putting the name Ubuntu somewhere in their binaries, they're badly mistaken and infringing. Sep 8, 2016 at 20:33
  • 3
    @R..: "Also, I don't see where declining to grant trademark license exempts you from the terms of the GPLv3 that require you allow conveying the work to others." - The trademark rule is under a list of things you can do "[n]otwithstanding any other provision of this License", and since Ubuntu contains its own name and logo, it's pretty clear that you can prohibit using that name and logo in a modified copy of the OS.
    – Kevin
    Sep 9, 2016 at 7:02

Yes, provided that you satisfy license conditions of all packaged software (ship the source code, etc.) and don't violate any trademarks, copyright laws, etc. Also, you must make sure that your action would make no harm to any third party person like murder, etc.

The closed source software included should not violate licenses of any libraries it uses (some licenses allow binary dependency of closed source software, some not).

  • 5
    Please read hvd's answer's note about Trademarks. The name thing wasn't the core of the question, but it's still part of it. Sep 8, 2016 at 14:15
  • 2
    I did already. When you are going to sell something you always have to check legality of trades you are going to conduct with international and local legislation. The trademark topics are a part of necessary checks.
    – Serge
    Sep 8, 2016 at 14:20
  • For me its obvious thing that should not be even asked, like, is murder legal?
    – Serge
    Sep 8, 2016 at 18:46
  • If you believe the OP shouldn't have asked one of his questions in the first place, you should clearly state it in your reply. As your reply is written, you seem to agree with the obvious trademark violation.
    – jlliagre
    Sep 10, 2016 at 13:29

As Serge mentioned, yes. However, you cannot modify parts that are GPL (the window manager is GPL) and then close source it. You cannot even use GPL libraries in closed source code. So the answer should actually be, NO as if you close source a major part of the system or desktop, by the time you are in the free and clear of GPL, it will have nothing to do with Ubuntu anymore. Additionally, I believe you need explicit permission from Canonical to use a word like Mubuntu. The question is really complicated. You need to do a lot of research and probably hire a lawyer if you were to do such a thing.


I thought I would update the question because the comments are getting very long on the topic of whether or not you can use GPL libraries in closed source code. LGPL permits this*, GPL does not**. From the authority on the subject gnu.org/licenses/why-not-lgpl.html :

... using the Lesser GPL permits use of the library in proprietary programs; using the ordinary GPL for a library makes it available only for free programs.

However, since most libraries are LGPL these days, the OP may not have as hard of a time as I originally thought.

* There are still certain conditions that need to be followed in order to use LGPL libraries.

** There are certain cases where you can use a GPL library in closed source code, such as if the software is not publicly distributed and if using the library is not considered a modification or derivative work (e.g., prelinking).

  • 2
    per OP they made a new window manager, I assume brand new.
    – Serge
    Sep 7, 2016 at 19:41
  • 1
    @slebetman Yea, and it took years and years and years for those products to become what they are today. OSX is NOT a comparable example. The BSD license is vastly different than GPL. BSD basically says do whatever, we don't care, just don't blame us. GPL tries to preserve certain "freedoms" and is far more restrictive. Sep 8, 2016 at 0:43
  • 2
    I'm pretty sure you can use GPL libraries from closed code, providing they are not statically linked, you are not distributing them, or you are distributing them within their terms. Just about everything in a whitegoods store has GPL'd code in it somewhere. It is not acceptable to pass through distribution either (e.g. ship ubuntu binaries and relying on Canonical to support is a no-no).
    – mckenzm
    Sep 8, 2016 at 3:48
  • 4
    @mckenzm I think that only applies to LGPL libraries with exception to the case where you are not distributing (either can be used). Sep 8, 2016 at 3:59
  • 1
    There are two questions. For the question in the topic(about selling modified linux) the answer is yes, and this answer is wrong about that, so -1. There were/are companies selling cds/dvds of unmodified linux distros, and modified one is as good. RHEL is another example. You can make perfectly fine business selling GPL software, it's just that it works differently than with properiarity. The answer is no when it comes to mubuntu, but that's other thing. Sep 8, 2016 at 13:31

Suppose somebody downloaded a Linux distro, like Ubuntu. Suppose further modify one piece of it, say the Window Manager.

No, you can't because there are some projects protected by Canonical , but if you need to contribute you need to sign Canonical’s contributor agreement :

The following projects are covered by Canonical’s contributor agreement. If you want to contribute to any of the projects below, please contact the project contacts listed in the third column.

In order to contribute, you need to sign Canonical’s contributor agreement.

Would it be perfectly legal for them to sell copies of this slightly modified version of Ubuntu (let's call it Mubuntu = Modified Ubuntu)?

What if they made the new window manager portion closed source? Would it still be legal to sell?

You can't do it without the permission of Canonical:

Restricted use that requires a trademark license

Permission from us is necessary to use any of the Trademarks under any circumstances other than those specifically permitted above. These include:

  • Any commercial use

  • Use on or in relation to a software product that includes or is built on top of a product supplied by us, if there is any commercial intent associated with that product.

  • Use in a domain name or URL.

  • Use for merchandising purposes, e.g. on t-shirts and the like.

  • Use of a name which includes the letters BUNTU in relation to computer hardware or software.

  • Services relating to any of the above.

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