Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Ubuntu faces an EULA problem

Ubuntu faces an EULA problem

Ubuntu lovers are all worked up - and this time it's due to the appearance of an end user licence agreement in the next version of their beloved distribution which is scheduled to be released in October.

This version of Ubuntu is to be called Intrepid Ibex. (Don't ask me why. I guess someone, maybe Mark Shuttleworth himself, wakes up at 3am and has a flash of inspiration. One could, of course, question why they didn't think of adventurous ant or egoistic elephant. Or even amorous armadillo/anteater. Maybe the Ubuntu people will keep those names in mind for April 2009.)

But at the moment, what's bothering the Ubuntu crowd is the appearance of an EULA for Firefox. Yes, free software with an end user licence agreement, that onerous click-through that is a hallmark of proprietary software.

In some ways, this is a reminder that open source is throwing some of its heritage away as the dollar signs appear in its eyes. Some years back, the Mozilla Foundation began to insist that only people who used its own vanilla version of Firefox could use the same logo; anyone who made changes to the code could not use the logo.

The Debian project encountered this problem in 2006 and was asked to stop using the name Firefox unless they used the same logo, something they could not do as the logo is not released under a copyright licence that is compatible with the free software guidelines that Debian follows. The Mozilla folk also wanted to vet every patch that the Debian developers applied to the Firefox code.

The solution? The Debian package of Firefox was renamed as IceWeasel and has been known as such ever since. When the Mozilla Foundation made a fuss about the name of the Thunderbird mail program, Debian promptly released it as IceDove.

Now it looks like the Mozilla people want to impose the same terms on Ubuntu - and this time an EULA has been added to the conditions. The Mozilla Foundation's attitude sets a precedent for open source software, one that is not particularly welcome.

Trademarks are all very fine. Red Hat is one GNU/Linux company that makes money through its trademarks - but it has no problem if someone else strips out the trademarks and then gives away its Linux distribution free.

When one installs a boxed set of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, there is a licence agreement which one has to agree to at the start - but then this is a commercial distribution. The same happens with the boxed sets of Mandriva and SUSE; however, in the case of the latter, one cannot deem it to be a standard any more as it is sold by Novell, a company that is in bed with Microsoft.

I have yet to see open source software, that is not sold  but freely downloadable, have an EULA. People who are part of the FOSS community often poke fun at companies like Microsoft which have onerous EULAs that one has to accept before installing software.

Now one of the best-known open source programs will have something similar - if the Ubuntu project gives in. The terms may be different - a Windows EULA, for example, strips away most of the common rights from an individual while the Firefox EULA is not half as bad - but the principle is the same.

Firefox has always been the default browser on Ubuntu. After the appearance of the EULA in alpha versions of Intrepid Ibex, there have been suggestions that Ubuntu adopt Epiphany, the browser that is developed by the GNOME project.

There is a quick solution - Ubuntu could go with IceWeasel instead. The Debian project would have no problem with that. But given the existing state of relations between the Ubuntu and Debian communities, it is unlikely that Shuttleworth will want to accept that solution.

When the appearance of the EULA was posted as a bug, Shuttleworth had this to say : "We do have the option to move away from Firefox (as you can see we have already invested in some of the work needed to have that alternative in abrowser). I am resolutely opposed to calling an unbranded firefox "Ubuntu Browser" (because we didn't write it) and I'm equally opposed to calling it "Iceweasel" (because our inability to agree with Mozilla is not also a rationale to belittle or demean them). I very much hope we won't have to use it as the default."

If the terms set down by the Mozilla Foundation are accepted, then it is likely that other projects which dot the open source landscape will follow suit. From there it is a short step to incorporating other onerous standards that make the whole idea of the term open source a joke.

Shuttleworth has been a trailblazer in many ways. It will be interesting to see what kind of solution he devises in order to avoid blurring the distinction between two distinctly different kinds of software and two philosophies which could not be more different.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.