Firefox Not Really Free?
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When most people think about the Mozilla Firefox browser, they think of it as being open source and free.
The truth is, while Mozilla Firefox is open source, it is not entirely free, and it may not even be legally compatible with Debian GNU/Linux, one of the most popular community Linux distribution bases.
The issue at hand is whether Debian can use the Firefox name for the Mozilla Firefox packages it includes in its GNU/Linux distribution.
Though Debian and Debian-derived distributions such as the popular Ubuntu Linux currently include Mozilla Firefox, they do not typically include the actual Mozilla Firefox logo (the stylized fox on the globe). And therein lies the rub.
Debian adheres to a strict interpretation of what is Free Software and what isn't, as outlined in the Debian Free Software Guidelines.
The Firefox logo is trademarked, so Debian doesn't consider it to be Free and will not include it as part of its distribution. Mozilla claims that using the Firefox name without the official branding is a trademark violation.
Furthermore, Mozilla claims that if Debian runs any patches to the version of Firefox included with Debian distros, it has to run them by Mozilla first for approval.
What all this ultimately could mean is that the Firefox name is wiped from the face of Debian and its offshoots.
Debian developer Eric Dorland confirmed to internetnews.com that Debian will re-name Firefox and that the re-naming process could be completed as soon as next week.
The whole dispute stems from the Mozilla Corporation's new-found determination to enforce trademarks.
In an e-mail sent to Debian developers, Mozilla staffer Mike Connor explained that the Mozilla Corporation has been handling patch approvals from distributions since the corporation's inception in September of 2005.
"The way this works (and the way Red Hat and Novell have already gone through the process for 1.0 and 1.5) is that you have to submit patches that deviate from the source tarballs in order to continue to use the trademark," Connor wrote.
"This is us attempting to tell you that what you are doing is not correct and needs to change.
"If you are going to use the Firefox name, you must also use the rest of the branding," Connor continued. "This is not something where you are free to pick what parts you want to use. Either use the trademarked logos and name together or don't."
The timing of Mozilla's trademark enforcement lust couldn't have come at a worse time for Debian.
A new Debian distro release, code-named "Etch," is due out by the end of the year, the first major release since Sarge in June 2005. Dorland actually asked Connor at one point in their e-mail discussion for a ,"stay of execution" until after Etch is released.
Mozilla's Connor had no sympathy for Dorland or Debian Etch and argued that the issue needs to be resolved before the release.
"I would think it makes much more sense to resolve this before you put another long-lived release into the wild, unless your aim is to delay compliance," Connor wrote to Dorland.
Debian's Dorland is standing his ground and will comply with Mozilla's heavy handedness by re-naming the Mozilla Firefox packages so that Debian will no longer be considered to be infringing on Mozilla's trademarks.
While using the Firefox name without the Firefox logo is not permissible, changing the name and calling Firefox something else is permissible.
It is unknown at this point what the new name for Debian's Firefox package will be called.
"There are a few names floating around that I'll probably choose from," Dorland told internetnews.com. "I'm afraid some of them might be too close to 'Firefox' to be comfortable if, for some reason, the Mozilla Corp. wished to come down even harder.
"I'll pretty much have to pick something and start the renaming by next week if I've any hope to get things ready for Etch."
In Dorland's view, the logo and the Mozilla approvals for Debian's Firefox patches are fundamentally the same issue.
"They really both stem from the same issue, that they're taking a very hard-line approach with their trademarks," Dorland said. "Now their lawyers may feel this is necessary -- and legally it may actually be the 'correct' thing to do -- but it really seems to run counter to community expectations.
"But I suppose on a day-to-day basis having to seek approval for patches would make working on the package a lot less fun."