Firefox EULA: Free as in ...?

By James Turner
September 15, 2008 | Comments: 2

The recent brouhaha, about the new EULA that the Mozilla Foundation is requiring Ubuntu to display for Firefox, provides an illuminating view as to the modern-day battle lines being drawn in the intellectual property wars. For those who are out of the loop, Mozilla restricts the use of the Firefox logo and name, which are trademarked. In order to run Firefox in the latest version of Ubuntu (Intrepid Ibex), you have to agree to a EULA. Here's the part of the license that has everyone in a tizzy:

3. PROPRIETARY RIGHTS. Portions of the Product are available in source code form under the terms of the Mozilla Public License and other open source licenses (collectively, "Open Source Licenses") at Nothing in this Agreement will be construed to limit any rights granted under the Open Source Licenses. Subject to the foregoing, Mozilla, for itself and on behalf of its licensors, hereby reserves all intellectual property rights in the Product, except for the rights expressly granted in this Agreement. You may not remove or alter any trademark, logo, copyright or other proprietary notice in or on the Product. This license does not grant you any right to use the trademarks, service marks or logos of Mozilla or its licensors.

As far as I understand it, the only portions of the Firefox source that aren't available as open source are the parts related to the logo art and trademarks. In fact, Firefox is available without the trademarks under the Iceweasel codename, the same browser in a plain brown wrapper, as it were.

So what is causing all the outrage? Mozilla is asserting, as is their right as the trademark holder, to require people using the trademarks to agree to certain terms. Essentially, Mozilla is trying to prevent people/distributions from creating cut down or buggy builds of Firefox, and applying the Firefox label to them. This is essentially the same issue that Sun and Microsoft went head to head on when Microsoft tried to call a non-standard version of the JVM 'Java'. Sun argued that as the holder of the trademark on Java, they had a right to determine and control the use of the name, and make sure that it was only applied to JVMs that met their standards.

The difference, of course, is that in the case of Java, Sun also kept the source code to Java closed (well, they used to.) That left FL/OSS advocates torn between applauding Sun for protecting the world from a Microsoft locked-in version of Java, and supporting a company that wouldn't open source Java. In the case of Mozilla, there's no such conflict. Mozilla makes the full source to Firefox available to anyone under a license that is less restrictive on usage than the GPL. The only thing they control is the trademarks.

This brings us back to the real issues here. First off, I suspect there are some currently bashing Mozilla that are doing it because Firefox isn't GPL'd. For some of the more extreme members of the FL/OSS community, the GPL is the One True License, and failure to use it puts you in the enemy camp. This is by no means the majority opinion, or even the opinion of the FSF so far as I know, but there is certainly a highly vocal minority that delights in taking pot-shots at anything that isn't GPL'd.

And, of course, there's a group of people who find the fact that Canonical offers for-profit versions of Ubuntu repulsive. They consider Debian the 'pure' version, because it refuses to incorporate any software that isn't GPL'd, and makes no effort to operate as a commercial entity. For them, this is another chance to point fingers and say "See, Ubuntu is a fraud, Debian is the only way to go!"

But more importantly, the original purpose of FLOSS has become distorted. The goals of Free Software are bleeding over into the entire intellectual property arena, sometimes inappropriately. FL/OSS was all about the idea of being able to share, reuse and improve the works of other software developers. It was also about the idea that if a company refuses to maintain its software, you should have the ability to. But, partially as a result of the laudable Creative Commons initiative, which is associated with FL/OSS in many people's minds, the idea is starting to develop that all intellectual property needs to be free, or it is evil.

I am an owner of intellectual property. I receive royalty checks every month from books I have written. I have also authored free software. I don't see any discordance between these two positions. FL/OSS emerged as a philosophy for very specific goals, goals that have nothing to do with the ownership of trademarks or written works or music or video or ornamental bonsai designs. Mozilla complies admirably with all the tenants of the FL/OSS movement.

Their desire to control the name of a piece of software that is intimately associated with their Foundation is perfectly understandable and reasonable. It doesn't restrict in any way the ability of anyone to take the Firefox source and do anything they want with it. It merely says "if you want to call it Firefox and use the logo, we want to make sure you're distributing a product that reflects well on us."

This controversy does nothing but weaken the entire FL/OSS community and provide comfort to those who want to see it fail. In reality, the EULA is unlikely to phase anyone launching the browser, at least outside those who see any form of EULA as immoral. If Canonical wants, they could use Iceweasel instead, but Firefox has a powerful brand name now, and Iceweasel is (to be honest) an offputting name with zero consumer recognition. Since Firefox has no disadvantages compared to Iceweasel, except for the requirement to restrict the use of the name itself, getting needlessly upset about it is a waste of energy and makes the entire community look petty and unreasonable.

I'm as big a foe of unreasonable intellectual property policies as you'll find. But I also believe that there are times when the use of intellectual property restrictions is appropriate, or even admirable. Mozilla realizes that Firefox is the first browser to make a serious dent in the IE monolith in a decade, and they want to ensure that the name is associated with a quality product that continues to give Microsoft a run for their money. If the price of that is spending 10 seconds to click on a button agreeing not to use their trademarks in an unauthorized manner, it's hardly worth thinking about.

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It would seem that Debian demand the same right on their site:

see Debian Official Use Logo License

Should all Debian users now erase their hard drives or is it one law for them....

You are missing ... a lot.

First of all there is not just one "part of the license that has everyone in a tizzy"; many people were opposed to the very idea of having an EULA at all. And even among those who weren't, many were opposed to having the EULA appear where it was (because it violated Ubuntu traditions). Neither group gave a damn about the particular part you focused on.

But you're also missing the fact that Firefox and their EULA don't have to be there at all. As you noted, everything in Firefox is open source EXCEPT the icons/graphics, which is why the TRULY open Ice Weasel version of Firefox (which doesn't use those icons/graphics) exists. Ubuntu users weren't just opposed to a EULA; they were opposed to a completely unnecessary EULA just to get some stupid fricking icons, when the equally functional Ice Weasel had no such EULA. Not to mention that GNOME (the default Ubuntu WM) already had it's own perfectly functional browser, Epiphany, which many felt Ubuntu should have supported instead.

Ultimately it's about having someone dictate terms and conditions to the open source community. Once you start accepting terms and conditions, you've left the open source world, and are on your way down a slippery slope to proprietary locked-in crapware. The Ubuntu crowd was rightfully outraged that the leading Ubuntu distro would start down this slope, and we should all be glad that as a result of their opposition the Mozilla folks ultimately pulled their heads out of their collective asses and got rid of the EULA (something you also failed to mention).

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