Of Freedom and Trademarks

I read an article this past weekend that brought up some interesting issues that I tend to forget about concerning free software. Most people these days are familiar with Firefox. While Firefox is open-source and “essentially” free software, the key area that makes it non-free is in its trademark and copyright. The brand name “Firefox” is a trademark of the Mozilla Foundation, as is the Firefox logo. Since the logo is artwork, it also falls under copyright restrictions.

Trademarks are a funny business. Unlike copyright, which is inherent from the minute that pen touches paper, a quotation is voiced, or a blog post is published, a trademark is not inherent. As such, copyright is enforceable in general. If you find a person violating that copyright, you are empowered to make them stop, but if you choose to ignore it, that’s your decision. Trademarks on the other hand are a “branding” and are not inherent. If you find someone in violation of your trademark, you must act to stop them (or help them to comply). Otherwise, you are forfeiting your right to the trademark.

In general, this is thought to be a good thing because trademarks are “branding” used to ensure quality. I probably don’t want to install just any piece of software on my computer, but if it’s “Mozilla Firefox” then I will. This is especially important when discussing open-source software. With proprietary software, it would be difficult to distribute a “fake” copy without people noticing a difference. But with open-source software, everyone has access to the application’s source code. This means that anyone could build it, modify it, and tell it to collect all of your private information for them. If they can convince you to install “their version” of your favorite program, that’s a major security threat. Sharing code is also the hallmark of free and open-source software, and users are encouraged to modify it. But it doesn’t mean that after doing that, they deserve to still call it “Firefox”. Of course, Firefox should be credited as the basis for the work. It’s good to know when something has been stamped “Mozilla Firefox” because it tells you that it’s endorsed by the Mozilla Foundation and you can trust it.

Now you might be sitting there, scratching your head, and asking, “What’s the big deal? Can’t I just assume that anything I get from mozilla.com is what I want?” For many people, the answer to that is “Yes, you can.” But according to its license, Firefox is free to distribute under its brand name as long as any changes to it have been approved by the developers. This is something that many GNU/Linux distributions take advantage of so that they can package “Firefox” as the official web browser of their operating system. This helps user-friendly distributions like Ubuntu because potential users instantly recognize the brand Firefox and are comfortable with it. This works well for just about everyone involved.

Debian is another GNU/Linux distribution. It has roots as one of the first GNU/Linux distributions, and it defines itself by its commitment to being free. You may have developed a great program that a lot of people like, but if it’s not free software, it’s not good enough to be called “Debian” and included in their operating systems. They would like to be able to use Firefox as their default web browser like other, less “freedom-oriented” distributions do. If it were just a trademark issue, there would be no problem. Debian could easily show Mozilla exactly what changes (if any) are in their version of Firefox. Since the Firefox logo is also under restrictive copyright protection, however, Debian can’t include it. They also can’t just exchange the logo for a non-copyrighted one because the Firefox logo is part of the trademark. This copyright could be changed to a more permissive license by Mozilla, but it looks like their theory is that Debian could just as easily bend their rules. This is where Debian has taken a stand. Since they’re committed to providing a completely free operating system, they do not include Firefox as their browser.

Firefox is a good browser, and Debian doesn’t want to try to code another browser or use a less popular alternative. Since the only real problem they have is with the trademark and artwork, they’d much rather keep the rest of the Firefox code intact. Plus, with the number of Firefox plug-ins available, a lot of users want to use it. So what does Debian do? Since Firefox is open-source, they just strip out the copyrighted logo and come up with their own. This means that they lose the “Firefox” branding, so they chose the name IceWeasel (and a free logo) to replace it.

Now it may seem like kind of a moot point in the long run, but it makes me proud to see that a distribution like Debian will stick to their guns in a situation like this. It may not be for everyone (I’m still using Firefox on Ubuntu), but they chose not to back down on the ideals of their organization and their users when it would have been very easy to do so. So kudos to Debian and IceWeasel.

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