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Mitch Meyran [opinions]

And now, on to something different... Copyright! [copyrights] [debian] [firefox] [iceweasel] [trademark]

As you may know, Debian 4.0 stable 'Etch' is almost out. As expected from the Debian project, it will be a very stable, feature-ladden if slightly outdated OS.

What you may not know, is that it will come without Firefox. Nope, no fox trailing fire on your Debian desktop, no sir.

Instead you'll get Iceweasel.

"I did it!" "No, that was me!"

Free software and copyright

Most free software licences allow you to get someone else's software code and modify it as you see fit, provided you mention the original author and contribute your modifications back to the community - or at least, to the original author (who may then decide to include it in his own version of the software).

Those licences however, don't grant you the right to call someone else's code your own: while you can hack at it as much as you want, only your own code is yours.

Copyright can be used on free/open source software to protect a certain implementation of the software: Red Hat for example, does release all of their source code and modifications. However, it is forbidden to copy their install CDs for anything else than private backup reasons. Why? Because those CD images, generated by them from their released source code, are copyrighted - on the same title that a drawing can be considered copyrighted by its author.

Nothing prevents you from creating a very close copy of those CD images; in fact, several distributions started off as such: get the sources, build the packages, rebuild a complete distribution from those source packages... Like a good artist in training, using the same brushes and paints to reproduce as closely as possible a recognized artist's painting. It's not forbidden, and in some cases even encouraged.

Passing off the copy as the original is forbidden, though - be it you pretending having made the original painting called 'Les Tournesols' (and not Vincent Van Gogh) or you owning the real 'Tournesols' (in order to sell your copy for a very very very high price).

Now, in the software world, how can you mark a text file as yours and yours only? Even better, how can you make a difference between a binary file built from your source, and from one built from a copy of those sources?

Well, you could open the code completely, but you may want to keep control of the logo and related artworks.

For example, the Mozilla Foundation has copyrighted the Firefox logo. Its terms are easy to follow: any binary built from the unmodified tarballs they release can go with the Firefox logo. If the source has been modified in any way, then the logo cannot be used.

Free software and trademark

Well, images are not the only things that can be protected; and after all, people could care less about what's in the icon representing their web browser. What they know though, is that the Mozilla Foundation's flagship browser is called Firefox.

Some people use Linux as if it were a common term nowadays (except the fine folks here at Free Software Magazine). However, look closer: what is, actually, called Linux? Nope, no distribution bears that name (Red Hat Enterprise/Server/Fedora, SuSE/OpenSuSE, Mandriva One/2007, Slackware, Debian stable/unstable/testing, Ubuntu...), but they would mention Linux - the kernel. It can be flavoured (but it will then contain appropriate copyrights in the files which were not provided in the 'vanilla' kernel), but it's the only part of the system dubbed 'Linux'. The companies themselves don't call themselves 'Linux': they 'distribute' Linux.


Linux is trademark 1991-2006 Linus Torvalds - and he does enforce it. Try to distribute a kernel containing no piece of the 'official' code and call it 'Linux', see if he accepts!

The Mozilla Foundation holds the copyright over the name 'Firefox' referring to a web browser. Like with their artwork, to use it, you need to compile their unmodified tarball.

As a matter of fact, even Mozilla developers don't call it Firefox while it's not out of beta: get a 'Deer Park' or 'Minefield' released tarball, and see if it contains any mention of the word 'Firefox', or the logo... No, not until it reaches Release Candidate status.

What the heck?!

Even RM Stallman doesn't complain about copyright laws over free/open-source software: in fact, he created the Free Software foundation and the GPL to ensure that code writers couldn't lose their code to less scupulous individuals, and that anybody's work should be recognizes as the author's property - but still be used freely, looked at without filtering glasses, modified as required and redistributed as seen fit.

In this aspect, the Mozilla foundation complies entirely: anybody can go and grab the source, modify, use, and redistribute it - provided the software generated from the sources don't include copyrighted artwork and isn't called something trademarked, be it their own trademark or someone else's.

The Woes of the Debian developers

Debian has always been well respected due to their code cleanliness, and how prompt they are to fix code exploits. They maintain their own repositories, which are accessible to anybody.

Now, their concerns about Firefox is that if they find a security bug in the software, they want to be able to fix it as soon as possible - making modifications to the source tarball. Considering how fast the Mozilla Foundation is about fixing and releasing new browser minor revisions (as fast as 36 hours), I'd say this concern of Debian's is a bit fragile.

More worrisome, due to code freeze in their 'stable' version, is that if their version of Firefox ends up being not supported any more, they can't back port security fixes and keep the name and artwork of the browser. Considering Firefox's release version support is usually 18 months (and Debian versions can run for years on end, see 3.0 'Sarge'), their concern is valid.

The solutions

  • Well, they could decide to let it go for the browser package: don't compile anything else than official Mozilla tarballs. Advantages: no licencing terms, little support hassle. Inconvenient: breech of Debian stable philosophy.
  • Or, they could decide to take a different name and artwork scheme: Deer Park is the code name for Firefox builds 1.5/2.0, and it comes with an artwork theme. It is also quite well-known and associated with what it is: where Firefox comes from.
  • Or then, they could do with integrated browsers: Gnome comes with Epiphany (based on the Gecko engine), KDE with Konqueror, or they could use Seamonkey.
  • Even better, they could become part of the Mozilla developers group: this would allow them to support the browser directly, and maybe extend the branch's support time - freeing other developers to develop newer features and clean up the code more.
  • Or then, take the code, give it a random name (Iceweasel) and a random icon (a sad blue-grey weasel humping a planet) and maintain it themselves - which, sadly, is what they chose to do.

Frankly, they could have used Firefox and the official tarballs: it is well maintained as it is, there are already regression test suites being improved at Mozilla - and once the code base is no longer maintained, then by all means, CHANGE name and artwork - to indicate it is no longer the unmaintained Firefox branch, but a Debian-maintined Gecko-based browser.

Does it work? Yes - see Seamonkey. Would they get cooperation from the Mozilla developers? Probably - see Seamonkey.


The next Debian version won't have Firefox, but still have a Gecko-based browser they'll be forced to maintain themselves (all that noise for a browser!), while the marketing specialists at the Mozilla foundation will try to explain how they could lose the whole Debian installed base.

What I find most stupid here is that there was the Mozilla suite/Seamonkey precedent - and it actually worked out quite well: while the official build is still maintained, use Mozilla packages. When support is discontinued, get latest code, change artwork, and support software yourself. This looks like throwing the baby out the window along with the bath water. What prevents Debian from doing this?


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