Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is a mainstream technology reporter who has often
shown a reasonably high level of clue regarding the free software
community. A recent article, titled Open Source
, shows where that clue ends, however. More to the point, it
shows an area where the free software community is having a hard time
making itself understood.
The article in question takes issue with the Debian project's plan to drop
Firefox from etch (see this LWN
article from September for more information), and with the existence of Gnuzilla and Iceweasel,
which are versions of the Mozilla suite and Firefox browser which are
intended to be truly freely redistributable.
Mr. Vaughan-Nichols presents
the issue as being only about logos, calls the Debian developers
"fundamentalists," and states:
By winning this "battle," the pedantic Debian developers have
helped the proprietary forces of Microsoft and friends far more
then the cause of Open Source.
So why is it that the Debian developers have done this terrible thing?
Maybe it is time to look at the reasoning behind this move.
The logo issue is real. It is provided under terms which are not
compatible with the Debian Free Software Guidelines, and, as a result,
cannot be shipped with the core Debian release. For some time, Debian was
able to ship a version of Firefox without the logo, but Mozilla Corporation
has called an end to that. As a result, Debian is in the position of being
asked to ship something it sees as non-free.
The logo issue might be enough to push Firefox out of a distribution like
Debian, but there are more serious issues as well. The Mozilla
trademark policy only allows a distributor to ship "Firefox" if it is
an unmodified copy of what the Mozilla people have released. Some
relatively trivial changes are allowed if the distributor calls the result
the "Firefox Community Edition"; anything beyond that cannot use the name
"Firefox" at all. The only exception is if explicit permission has been
obtained from the Mozilla Corporation prior to distribution.
Distributors often do want to make changes to Firefox - just like they
change many other programs they ship. At a minimum, they often want to
apply their own security fixes, since Mozilla's approach to security
patches tends to be rather distributor-hostile. Having Mozilla review
every patch as required will slow the process down, even if there are no
disagreements about specific changes. This policy makes it hard to provide
quick security updates to Firefox; this matters, especially, when a
distributor is trying to maintain a version of the browser that Mozilla
Corp. has long since abandoned.
Perhaps most important, however, is this: even if a distributor gets
permission to ship a specific modified version of Firefox, there is nothing
which automatically gives anybody else that permission. Using one
distribution as a base for another is a time-honored practice in the Linux
community; there are, in fact, very few distributions out there which were
truly started from scratch. But what is a distribution based on (say)
Debian to do with a modified version of Firefox? The creator of the
derived distribution has no permission from Mozilla Corporation to
distribute that modified version - even if no further changes are made.
The presence of this modified package creates a trap which any second-stage
distributor must find and defuse; it makes the distribution less
redistributable, less free.
In the end, however, Mozilla's code is free software; all that is needed to
avoid all of this trouble is to change its name. That is just what Debian
is doing - and other distributors may yet follow suit.
Mr. Vaughan-Nichols fears that this change will confuse users and send them
screaming back to the comfort and stability of Windows. It would seem that
the "Firefox" trademark has become so important that we must use it, or the
dream of World Domination on the desktop will come to an untimely and
ignominious end. "Freedom," says the article, "trumps
The problems is...freedom is what this is all about. There would appear to
be an increasing number of people who are calling for the community to
"bend a little" on freedom in the name of winning the desktop battle. It
may (or may not) be true that Linux could advance more quickly on the
desktop if it were to become more like Windows. But what would be the
point? If the choice is forced upon us, it would seem better to dispense
with an overly-controlled name and keep our desktop free, supportable, and
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