It’s no great secret that our organization Reglue uses Linux Mint on many of our outgoing computers. I run Mint on one of my work computers and at home as well. Linux Mint has given us the opportunity to create a respin for educational purposes within our non profit, largely due to an app named mintConstructor. It provides a fairly simple method of making custom systems using Linux Mint as the base.
We have tried to use UCK (Ubuntu Customization Kit) to do so but it can be a hit or miss thing when attempting a respin via a derivative of Ubuntu. mintConstructor works much better.
With our decision to move Reglue to KDE, I looked the landscape over and decided that the Mint KDE LTS version would be best suited for our needs. Friend and Google Plus buddy Randy Noseworthy took the contract for putting together our new LTS release for Reglue. It wasn’t long until Randy contacted me via email and gave me some bad news.
“mintConstructor has been pulled from the repos.”
“Surely not”, I thought to myself. That didn’t sound right and I mentioned so in my G+ stream. It wasn’t long before someone in my circles came up with the answer. Homer Slated posted the following to my inquiry:
“The reason we no longer distribute it is because it’s hurting our project much more than it’s helping a few people in our community remaster Mint for their personal needs. The reason it happened overnight was because, apparently, we released two editions we never worked on (Studio Edition and Dewdrop). Some people used our name, logos and identity to promote their own products” ~ Clement Lefebvre, Mint founder.
As it often happens, a few ruined it for many. We have used Linux Mint for a number of years at Reglue. Hundreds of kids have been introduced to computing via Linux Mint. Trying to install the additional packages on each computer was killing us time-wise. We place anywhere from 100 – 300 computers a year. When we can automate or cut down the time a machine is on the bench, the better off everyone is. That’s why mintConstructor is so important. At least to us.
Randy dug around on his hard drive, and fortunately, was able to locate an older working .deb file which he used to finish the Reglue respin, using KDE Mint as the base. We should be good until 2017, when the LTS is no longer supported.
Of course, we’ve altered nothing but the packages that are included with the Mint system ISO. The Mint branding remains throughout the entire system, as does the revenue-creating search options via Yahoo and DuckDuckGo. I think the most invasive thing we’ve done is make a Reglue desktop wallpaper available in the rotation. We will be making that ISO available shortly for anyone to use and critique.
But several people have raised a question. When is FOSS not Free? Apparently, when the creator says so, or so it would seem. Does pulling a seemingly important developers’ app reflect on Clem Lefebvre and Mint in general? Personally, I believe it’s a survivable mistake, but one that will cost Clem some geek cred.
Homer shared his opinion on the matter, and many responded in kind:
“What a bizarre attitude for a supposed Free Software developer. Lefebvre should count himself lucky that Torvalds doesn’t take a similar attitude toward his unlicensed use of the word ‘Linux’ (yes, it’s trademarked).
“No wonder you’re having such difficulty. The tools you need are not simply missing, they’ve been deliberately removed and prohibited, for reasons that should never, ever have anything to do with Free Software.”
Lefebvre says that’s not so.
“mintConstructor is, was, will, and always will be GPL. It’s available from various sources on the Internet already and anyone who has it is welcome and able to distribute it or to fork it under a new name. That is the essence of open source and we all agree that this is a wonderful thing. The life span of an open source project doesn’t stop when it is no longer developed. This is what happened here, Linux Mint will no longer distribute, develop or promote this tool. Its licensing won’t change though and I’m sure other developers will take the relay.”
I can’t validate it’s available from “various sources,” but we were able to locate a source of the software on Github without much trouble.
Some have argued that Lefebvre did the same thing when he created Mint from the Ubuntu base. I don’t think that’s entirely correct but I see how this might be a justified opinion, at first blush anyway. Clem never branded his distro as “Ubuntu” or any “buntu” for that matter. Clem felt that his hard work was being threatened by these other projects and took steps to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Would issuing a public warning to the offending parties have worked better? I mean instead of eradicating the program completely from the repositories? I’m inclined to say it would. But then again, purging all known links and mention of the application from your website in less than 24 hours sends a pretty strong message as well. When something like this happens as quickly as this did, and without any discussion or warning, that can be perceived as drastic. It most certainly has been cause for all sorts of conjecture.
Babies, bathwater and all of that.
Someone close to me equated this to a child who got his feelings hurt and grabbed up his ball and went home, as is often seen in playground disputes.
“If you’re not gonna play by my rules, no one will play.”
I can understand Clem’s reaction to a point. He’s worked for years to achieve the success he and the Mint team enjoy. Of course he feels invested in his work and understandably protective. Lefebvre explains in more detail:
“Regarding branding issues themselves, we’re getting in touch with the maintainer of Linux Mint Studio and he accepted to rename and re-brand his work under a different name. We got no news from ‘Dewdrop’… As a rule of thumb we like to encourage everyone to use the technology we develop (i.e. our packages, repositories and tools) but to also discourage people from using our name, logos, artwork and branding. Ideally, we want to share everything we do, but we don’t want anyone else but us to call themselves ‘Linux Mint.’ It’s our identity.”
This tool may have been removed from all presence and mention from the Mint Project, but it is still available elsewhere, and that’s a good thing.
Personally, I will argue that bringing the offenders into the cold light of millions of computer monitors would have been a better solution. If someone is going out of their way to use your name and reputation, you are doing something right. People are always going to try to copy you if you produce a superior product. Publicly outing them could probably do more harm to their efforts than anything else.
And sure, it probably would devolve into a public squabble that would distract everyone from their duties. Clem possibly did what he did in order to avoid that in particular. Trust me on this one, I’ve been caught up in what should have been a local squabble which ended up going viral. It can get ugly fast, but people will most always side with those that are in the right. Clem Lefebvre believes he is on the right side of this issue.
There are hundreds of Central Texas kids that have benefited personally from Clem Lefebvre’s work; I know that for a fact. Now multiply that by a few hundred times. Times you will never know about. Times when a tool was forged to do a task no other tool could — a tool mighty enough to change the course of a human being’s life. Be it in Boise or Burma, the ability to tailor an operating system to the student’s specific needs is a massively powerful tool to possess.
With that in mind, others took it upon themselves to find instances of mintConstructor via the Wayback Machine and seeded those files in other places. That .deb file and source are now in greater circulation and will be a bit easier to find. In their mind, they are doing the right thing.
Speaking with colleagues, it was proposed that maybe well enough should have been left alone. Has releasing it back into the wild been a bad thing, given that the developer obviously doesn’t want it in circulation or in as little circulation as possible? Or was there really any point to pulling the code from the Mint repositories in the first place?
It appears that someone was able to find it and bend it enough to meet their own needs. At this point, I am not sure removing it from the Mint repositories did anything but inconvenience people who were looking for it at that particular time. People who needed that file had to actually go look for it.
And yeah, to some this incident had all the look and feel of a power play. Folks know one when they see one and power plays are not always noted in a positive light. But neither is identifying someone else’s work as your own.
My guess is that this current release of mintConstructor will not be updated, at least by anyone from the Mint team. Unless someone can keep up with future Mint releases, this is the end of the line so to speak. That’s fine. I’ve actually been able to create a Mint KDE respin from UCK, but I had to use the Tasksel solution as the Synaptic method crashed the whole project. Live and learn. That’s the beauty of open source, something will take the place of something removed if it’s important to the right people.
I think we are the right people.
Free open source software is a spark that ignites the flame of knowledge, education and growth, especially within the Linuxsphere. So maybe this is an extremely small instance. Maybe in the grand scheme, it’s not that important. Whether it is or not, I am glad that the pieces could be swept up, repaired and put back into service. Maybe a little girl in Burma will be inspired to be the first doctor or scientist in her family.
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue