Mozilla in hot water over use of EULA in Canonical Ubuntu Linux

The definition of just how free is "free" is once again the subject of debate, triggered this week by the inclusion of a typical-looking end user license agreement from Mozilla Corp. amid the setup for recent builds of Ubuntu Linux.

At issue, for the most part, is this: Can a private interest claim intellectual property rights to certain trademarked elements of code that are distributed as part of an open source package protected by the General Public License?

That actually wasn't the only issue Ubuntu users had with Mozilla's EULA. Canonical officially categorized the EULA as a program bug last Saturday, describing it as follows: "THIS AGREEMENT IS OBNOXIOUS and largely irrelevant to Ubuntu users. The license refers to installation and closed-source parts which ARE COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT TO UBUNTU USERS. THE LICENSE PAGE ALSO DOES NOT PREVENT ME FROM USING THE BROWSER WITHOUT AGREEING TO IT. It deserves capital punishment DUE TO EXCESSIVE USE OF CAPS."

One of the capitalized portions of the EULA with which Ubuntu users were presented states that users indicate their complete acceptance by clicking on the Accept button. Of course, setup of the entire operating system can't go on as scheduled until the user does this.

In a tidal wave of discussion posts on the issue on Ubuntu's Web site, users raised a myriad of complaints, most of which actually did not concern Mozilla's use of all-caps.

"The Web browser is almost always going to be a user's first impression of Ubuntu," wrote user William Grant on Sunday. "Firefox, the current default Web browser, is also the only application in the default installation to present a EULA on first start. It feels invasive to me, and a little frightening: I'm not used to being required to read legal text in order to use applications included with Ubuntu."

User Curtis Unger argued that it was wrong for Canonical's management to enter into an agreement with Mozilla that enabled the organization to display Firefox's EULA, without discussing the matter with the community at large first. "There is no excuse for the timing and seeming ignorance in allowing this to be the path at which the community now has to address the issue to Mozilla," Unger wrote. "The lack of trust and experience is simply offensive. If we can get Google to change their EULA for Chrome on Windows, surely we can pressure them and Mozilla to drop the EULA in Linux."

The discussion became so dense and so heated over the past few days that some users suggested dividing Firefox from the product altogether, replacing it instead with the GNOME-based browser Epiphany -- which appears to have much of the look and feel of Internet Explorer version 3.

Others proposed an even more drastic approach, though not an unprecedented one: creating their own fork of Firefox that contains derivatives of its source code, but which does not use any of its trademarks and which omits Mozilla's EULA.

It's been done before: Three years ago, developers with the Debian Project distributed a reworked version of Firefox, with an eerily similar, though officially different, set of logos. The first edition was called Iceweasel, which later evolved into IceCat, a Firefox fork distributed with the GNU license. It essentially complied with Mozilla's wishes to be given credit where credit was due, although Mozilla's trademarks wouldn't have to be protected by any EULA simply because those trademarks were stripped from it.

This discussion devolved down some unusual avenues: for instance, since someone actually already has stripped a Firefox version of its trademark and redistributed it under the GNU license as "free," why would Canonical's community or anyone else actually need to do the same thing again? And if the act of stripping the trademark wouldn't have to be done again, then would simply adopting someone else's stripped-trademark version be an effective protest?

In an effort to forestall any chance that the debate could lead to drastic action, Mozilla Foundation chairperson Mitchell Baker issued a mea culpa yesterday. "The most important thing here is to acknowledge that yes, the content of the license agreement is wrong," Baker wrote. "The correct content is clear that the code is governed by FLOSS [free-libre open source software] licenses, not the typical end user license agreement language that is in the current version. We created a license that points to the FLOSS licenses, but we've made a giant error in not getting this to Ubuntu, other distributors, and posted publicly for review. We'll correct this ASAP."

Later that day, Mozilla Corp. vice president and general counsel Harvey Anderson posted a "beta test" of sorts for a revised EULA that may somehow be made visible to Ubuntu installers, but which will not require a click-through button for them to proceed. Omitted from this new language are the explicit trademark redistribution clauses.

As Anderson wrote, "The license grant itself was inconsistent with the values of many of the users in the Linux communities and our own. They viewed the EULA as improperly imposing restrictions on the use of Firefox. Red Hat and Fedora were staunch advocates for making a change, and helped us understand the problem and potential fixes. Upon review, they were right."

Red Hat? Indeed, Fedora architect Tom Callaway not only brought up the Ubuntu issue in a recent blog post, but took credit for helping Mozilla draft the new EULA presented by Anderson. "If Mozilla was smart," Callaway wrote, "they'd back away from the idea of overriding a perfectly valid, functional, accepted and understood license with a EULA. They don't gain very much, and stand to lose a lot more...The EULA that we've helped them draft sucks a lot less than the one they started with."

Perhaps because a EULA still exists, and perhaps because Mozilla gave credit to Red Hat for the prospective solution, the more vocal part of the Ubuntu community has yet to come to a consensus. Just a few hours ago, one user wrote, "No EULA-free Firefox? No Firefox, then, thank you."

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