Mozilla has received widespread criticism from within the open-source community for bundling a EULA with official binary builds of Firefox 3. Critics argue that including a conventional user license agreement in Firefox is antithetical to the principles of unencumbered use that are cherished in the open-source software community. The debate is now going on in full force in the Ubuntu community with the filing of a bug report about the EULA.
The EULA is largely meaningless because the terms of the open-source software licenses under which Firefox is distributed give users the ability to strip the EULA and compile a custom version of the browser that omits it. Mozilla's trademark policies, however, would make it impossible to include the Firefox name or branding on any derivative that deviates from the original sources in that manner. This poses a challenge for Linux distributors who don't want to impose the EULA display screen on their users.
A disgruntled Ubuntu user filed a bug report complaining about the EULA in an effort to draw attention to user frustration with the issue. The report launched a major flame war and inspired numerous other users to post comments expressing dissatisfaction and calling for Ubuntu to either do away with the EULA, even if it means dropping the Firefox branding, or switch to a native open-source browser such as Epiphany.
The Ubuntu developers already have a generic unbranded version of Firefox packaged as "abrowser" in the Ubuntu repositories. This could be used as a last resort if no compromise can be reached. Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth has revealed that he and several others in the Ubuntu community are negotiating with Mozilla to find a reasonable resolution.
"We have been holding extensive, sensitive and complex conversations with Mozilla. We strongly want to support their brand (don't forget this is one of the few companies that has successfully taken free software to the dragon's lair) and come to a reasonable agreement," Shuttleworth wrote. "We want to do that in a way which is aligned with Ubuntu's values, and we have senior representatives of the project participating in the dialogue and examining options for the implementation of those agreements."
Debian, the distribution from which Ubuntu is derived, has already changed the Firefox name and branding in its own builds over an unrelated dispute regarding licensing and trademark issues. The Debian flavor of Firefox is called IceWeasel, and it replaces the Firefox logo art with an image of a weasel humping a globe. Shuttleworth has rejected adopting IceWeasel for Ubuntu because he considers it inappropriate to mock Firefox.
Mozilla's Mitchell Baker has responded to the controversy and has indicated that efforts are under way to address the concerns that have been expressed by users. Mozilla is changing the text of the EULA to indicate that usage of the software is governed by open-source licenses. It remains unclear, however, whether a license will still be displayed when the program starts.
"The most important thing here is to acknowledge that yes, the content of the license agreement is wrong. The correct content is clear that the code is governed by FLOSS licenses, not the typical end user license agreement language that is in the current version," Baker wrote in a blog entry. "We take this very seriously and are working hard to fix it."
The rate at which this issue has escalated reflects the importance that users in the open-source software community place on licensing. Many Linux users have come to the platform in order to escape from the mess of confusing and highly restrictive licensing terms that are imposed by proprietary software applications. Rather than displaying legal boilerplate in an annoying dialog window the first time that the user launches the browser, it might be wiser for Mozilla to instead include a section in the first-run web page that explains in clear language the rights granted to end users by the permissive open-source licenses under which the browser is distributed.Posted on