Mozilla admits 'giant error' with Firefox EULA move

Yanks license after Linux users howl, will revise in next update

Bending to criticism from Linux users angry that it added a license agreement to Firefox, open-source developer Mozilla Corp. has admitted making a mistake and said it will strip the legalese from the browser's next update.

In a pair of blog posts, former Mozilla CEO Mitchell Baker -- currently the chairman of the umbrella Mozilla Foundation -- first acknowledged the error of packing an end-user licensing agreement (EULA) with the Linux version of Firefox and then announced that the agreement would be dropped.

"The most important thing here is to acknowledge that yes, the content of the license agreement is wrong," said Baker on Monday. "The correct content is clear that the code is governed by FLOSS [free/libre open-source software] licenses, not the typical end-user license agreement language that is in the current version. We created a license that points to the FLOSS licenses, but we've made a giant error in not getting this to Ubuntu, other distributors, and posted publicly for review."

On Tuesday, Baker went a step further. "We've come to understand that anything EULA-like is disturbing, even if the content is FLOSS-based. So we're eliminating that."

The brouhaha began when Ubuntu users began complaining last week that the newest build of Firefox, Version 3.0.1, came with a license agreement. Mark Shuttleworth, CEO of Canonical Ltd., the commercial entity that sponsors Ubuntu, quickly weighed in on a mailing list. "I would not consider an EULA as a best practice," said Shuttleworth on Saturday, describing how Mozilla had demanded the EULA as a trademark-protection move. "It's unfortunate that Mozilla feels this is absolutely necessary, but they do."

In the same message, Shuttleworth told users to calm down. "It's not constructive to say 'WTF?' nor is it constructive to rant and rave in all caps," he continued. "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."

Although EULAs are commonplace in the Windows and Mac OS X ecosystems, they are not only rare but largely irrelevant in Linux and other open-source environments.

Mozilla's lawyer said as much in a Monday blog entry of his own, spelling out two problems caused by the company's EULA decision. "One, it put a EULA in front of a set of end users who are not accustomed to seeing such agreements," said Harvey Anderson, a Mozilla vice president and the company's chief counsel. "Second, the license grant itself was inconsistent with the values of many of the users in the Linux communities and our own."

Anderson included a draft version of revised licensing language in his post.

In the meantime, a pair of just-spotted bugs in the development builds of Firefox 3.0.2 have delayed that next update by about a week, and they will give Mozilla the opportunity to roll in revised licensing language before that version ships.

Mike Beltzner, director of Firefox, dubbed the licensing change one of several "opportunistic ride-along patches" that will be tucked into Firefox 3.0.2, courtesy of the delay.

Firefox 3.0.2 is still tentatively scheduled to ship next week, Beltzner said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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