Free Software EULAs?

Ubuntu is now being forced to show a EULA before letting users run Firefox, on pain of losing the rights to the Firefox trademark.  (You know, End User License Agreements: those pop-ups Windows and Mac users have to put up with all the time, with the big “I Accept” button at the bottom.)  Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu top dog, weighs in on the bug:

Please feel free to make constructive suggestions as to how we can meet Mozilla’s requirements while improving the user experience. It’s not constructive to say “WTF?”, nor is it constructive to rant and rave in allcaps. Your software freedoms are built on legal grounds, as are Mozilla’s rights in the Firefox trademark. To act as though your rights are being infringed misses the point of free software by a mile.

This is a bit surprising, and a bit disappointing.  Both the decision itself, and Mark’s take on it, are quite wrong.

One of the most important benefits of free software is the legal agreement you work in.  You don’t have to agree to some long contract every time you need to do something new on your system, or sometimes even when you get a “critical update” to something you’re already doing.  You don’t have to read pages of legalese, or go through some long process with your company’s legal department, or just click the “make it go away” button with this vague unease that you’ve just signed your first-born child away to the Devil.

Most importantly, you feel like you actually own your computer when you run free software on it.  When you enter a situation where you always have to ask permission to do things, and have to be constantly reminded of the rules, you don’t feel comfortable.  Clearly, the thing in front of you is not yours, whatever your credit card bill might say; if it were, there wouldn’t be all this stress over you doing something the real owners don’t like.  Free software returns your computer to you, by guaranteeing that you don’t have to enter into all these contracts before you can use it.

Well, unless that “free” software is Firefox 3.0.2 or later, it seems.

It’s “free” by a technical definition (you can strip the Firefox trademark rather easily, and get rid of the EULA as well).  But when users fire up Ubuntu, and decide to do some browsing, and get confronted with pages of legal garbage and ALL CAPS, they will ask: “What’s so different about this open source stuff?  I thought I was getting rid of all this legal crap.”  And, suddenly, they’re slogging through the same drudgery they had to endure with every Windows service pack, and they wonder what they’ve gained.

Perhaps there is a price we should be willing to pay to help Mozilla preserve their trademarks, but this price is too great.  Mozilla should never have asked this of us, and Ubuntu should never have decided, on our behalf, that this price was acceptable.

Debian has already turned its back on Firefox, and I have yet to have a problem with Iceweasel (the branding Debian chose for its Firefox-alike) that was caused by the branding change.  But I’m tempted to bring it back, in Debian’s “non-free” software repository.  Perhaps we could provide Firefox, complete with nasty EULA, but launch Iceweasel instead of Firefox if the user clicks “No”.  There are probably all kinds of reasons why this is a bad idea, but I’m still drawn to the idea of illustrating how silly and useless click-through EULAs are.

But it would be much more productive for Mozilla to back down, and not ask us to sacrifice such a large part of our identity on the altar of their sacred mark.

UPDATE: First, I notice I was remiss in not giving a hat tip to Slashdot.

Second, Mark has posted another comment on the bug.  I encourage people to read the whole comment, but here’s a telling part:

For example, at the moment, we’re in detailed negotiations with a
company that makes a lot of popular hardware to release their drivers as
free software – they are currently proprietary. It would not be possible
to hold those negotiations if every step of the way turned into a public
discussion. And yet, engaging with that company both to make sure Ubuntu
works with its hardware and also to move them towards open source
drivers would seem to be precisely in keeping with our community values.

In this case, 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 dragons lair) and come to a reasonable
agreement. 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. Me. Matt Zimmerman. Colin Watson. Those people have earned
our trust.

On the one hand, yes, I believe that the Canonical people have earned our trust, and I do appreciate the utility of quiet persuasion with a proprietary software company that doesn’t understand our community.  On the other hand, I had been under the impression that Mozilla was not a proprietary software company, and didn’t need persuasion and secret negotiations to see our point of view.

Is Mozilla still a free software company, or not?

UPDATE 2: Cautious optimism is appropriate, I think.  Mitchell Baker, Mozilla chair:

We (meaning Mozilla) have shot ourselves in the foot here given the old, wrong content.  So I hope we can have a discussion on this point, but I doubt we’ll have a good one until we fix the other problems.

The actual changes aren’t available yet, and I wonder how much of this had been communicated to Canonical beforehand.  Still, it’s a good sign.

14 thoughts on “Free Software EULAs?

  1. Saw the same thing recently with the OpenSolaris package of Firefox. So they seem to force everybody to do this trademark-EULA limbo. At least they’re consistent with this stuff.
    Beside that I still agree that is on the wrong lane with it and should stop it and get sane again. Maybe that’s the things that happen when you start to be successfull and there is still a (small) truckload of money involved.

  2. Hi Jeff,
    You say that “Both the decision itself, and Mark’s take on it, are quite wrong.” Since this is a very typical statement from a Debian guy, I wondered if this time there is any reason for stating this and you proved me right: you don’t add a single line to back this up!

    What you say in the rest of the post is basically, that Mozilla is wrong. This is the same thing that Mark and the Ubuntu community are saying! They have also made a package called “abrowser” which is Firefox without the branding. They have also made a brainstorm ticket stating that Ubuntu should rather switch to Iceweasel then popping up the EULA. And Mark has not made a “decision” as you state, but asked for “constructive suggestions” on how to deal with this (did you even read the quote that you used?)

    One such suggestion could be to talk with Mozilla and tell them, that this EULA has no legal effect whatsoever in Germany and many European countries, because it is ask after the download! Maybe arguments like that could help more then just stripping the brand…

  3. Stefan:

    Also from Mark’s comment on the bug:

    “It’s strongly our preference, and that of most of our users, to have Firefox as the browser in Ubuntu.”

    And that preference overrides the preference not to have a EULA, as of the present time. That is the first part I claim is wrong.

    The second is this, which I did quote:

    “To act as though your rights are being infringed misses the point of free software by a mile.”

    Yes, my rights–to my own computer–are being infringed, in my view.

  4. The hat tip should be for Phoronix, as that’s where I came across the story (for some reason the /. eds removed it before publishing it).

  5. Pingback: Miriam Ruiz
  6. “Is Mozilla still a free software company, or not?”

    Yes, they just decided to protect their brand through a trademark, something completely uncovered by free/open-source software licenses afaik (ianal).

    They should have done what Google did with Chrome: have an open source version with a different name (Chromium). This way they could enforce their Firefox trademark and allow anyone to distribute software based on the same code with a similar yet unencumbered name.

    For what its worth, “Iceweasel” is perhaps the *least* appealing name in software history. “Puss Filled Blister Browser” is almost as appealing.

    I wonder if the maintainers behind Iceweasel had picked a better name distros would have used it and we could forget these ridiculous accusations of non-freeness.

  7. The reason for a EULA in free software is so users cannot sue the company by blaming the company that the software did harm to them, their data or their equiptment. You people are paranoid and not the sharpest tools in the shed. All software, free or premium has a EULA if the provider has any sense of self preservation.

  8. I agree, the sole purpose it to protect those offering and/or distributing the software from legal liability. Even with free stuff, do developers and distributers get in trouble due to abuse.

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