Firefox and Ubuntu

Saturday, October 28th, 2006

I’m sure many folks are aware of the tension between Mozilla and Debian over the use of the name “Firefox” for the web browser package. A good exchange of comments between Chris Beard of Mozilla, and Mike Hommey of Debian highlights some of the challenges involved.

Both groups really, genuinely mean well. I know this because I’ve spent some time working with both of them. Both care deeply about free software and both want to see the world improved through the wide availability of high quality software that comes with the right to change it. So it is a little frustrating to see this level of public tension between two groups that have come to represent, each in their own way, something iconic about free software.

First, let me say that both groups are being entirely reasonable about their positions. Debian has every right to insist that it have the freedom to ship the package in the form that it deems most appropriate for its users, and Mozilla has every right to protect its trademarks.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Debian’s position on both free software and trademarks is very complex and not entirely consistent. Consider the recent decision to ship Etch with proprietary software built in. Firmware is in most cases X86, PPC, Mips or ARM code (architectures Debian supports) for which real source in C exists – but that source code is of course not provided. Also consider Debian’s own trademark policy which, while liberal, still restricts what can be done.

My goal in our own discussions with Mozilla has been to establish that it really is possible for a distribution that cares about free software and Mozilla to agree on a framework which gives us both what we need. The Ubuntu team went as far as preparing packages without the Firefox name in case we were unable to reach an agreement – but in the end the fact that we kept the lines of communication wide open meant that we were able to find a middle ground and ship the packages we want while still supporting the Firefox name and Mozilla’s work. Nobody sold out.

I hope that the lead we have established with Ubuntu and Mozilla will benefit Debian, establishing a precedent that allows both groups to get what they want. But I also think that it may just be that the needs of the two camps are incompatible. And that in itself is a reasonable thing.

What I would like to ask for, should that prove the case, is that both sides are as gracious about it as possible. There’s no need for name-calling in either community.

Remember – we are all committed to 99.9% of the same vision. We have far more in common than our colleagues and counterparts at Microsoft and Opera and other proprietary browser vendors. Let’s make sure the tone and the scope of the dialog between us reflects the full reality of our alignment (and in truth also our disagreements) rather than just the specific small stone in one shoe. The media love to play up differences – of course they do, it makes for a damn good story! Don’t let that be how the discussion is ultimately remembered.

Should Debian settle on IceWeasel, thats fine and dandy and does not mean that anybody should call them “fundamentalists”, as I’ve seen happening. Neither should Mozilla’s position give anyone in the Debian camp cause to imply that Mozilla are corporate junky marketroids. They simply are not. They’re damn good browser innovators, and they publish their code under free software licenses because that’s what they think is the right thing to do.

Excellent work happens on both sides, with real collaboration in the best spirit of free software development. I would in particular like to highlight the amazing work that Mike Hommey does on the IceFox (:-)) packages in Debian. There’s a huge amount of effort that goes into testing, porting, reviewing, and generally being a good free software citizen on a package of this scale, and Mike and others in Debian do a phenomenal job. In his analysis he points out that the Ubuntu and Debian packages are very similar – I think that’s a credit to Ian Jackson, who I know spends a lot of time passing Ubuntu changes to Debian, trying to make sure that there’s no unnecessary divergence between Debian and Ubuntu.

It’s a very important thing to know that an inability to agree on something – even if that thing turns out to be a dealbreaker – doesn’t mean that the other person is a bad person. Give credit where it is due, state your differences simply and without prejudice. Debian and Mozilla should be able to work together effectively on a browser, even if they can’t agree on a way to call it Firefox.

77 Responses to “Firefox and Ubuntu”

  1. fabio Says:

    an enlightened opinion (again)

  2. Jed Says:

    Mark: Awesome.
    Everyone else: Are you crazy?
    Forget about trademarks and any legal issues just for a moment.

    So I’m a Company called ‘X’, and I make a opensource browser called ‘Y’.
    Simply put I obviously release the code under an OS license and am perfectly happy with people forking the code, I do make one request however. If anyone does fork it, and applies any changes that I have not approved, please don’t call it ‘Y’ as I want people running ‘Y’ to be running what I made. You can call your’s “You company’s Y”, but not just ‘Y’ as I don’t want to confuse my users, specifically I offer support for ‘Y’, so if 20 browsers are called ‘Y’, I’m going to have a damn hard time figuring out if you really have my ‘y’ or someone elses.

    This is completely reasonable. Even if my request isn’t legally bindable, the simple fact that I’m asking you to do that should be enough. If you can’t respect me and my request, then get the hell away from my code.

    This isn’t a hard issue to understand.

  3. It’s A Binary World 2.0 » Blog Archive » Shuttleworth Weighs in in IceWeasel Says:

    […] This has caused a lot of name-calling back and forth between the two camps.  Mark Shuttleworth, who’s Ubuntu is based in Debian, posted a reconcilatory post today whereby he called on both sides to respectfully disagree. Both groups really, genuinely mean well. I know this because I’ve spent some time working with both of them. Both care deeply about free software and both want to see the world improved through the wide availability of high quality software that comes with the right to change it. So it is a little frustrating to see this level of public tension between two groups that have come to represent, each in their own way, something iconic about free software. […]

  4. Joe Buck Says:


    Firefox isn’t the only prominent open source software that has a trademark. Linux is also trademarked, but Linus does not require that he personally review and approve every patch in any version of the kernel that is going to be called Linux.
    Allowing developers to experiment with patches and allow the public to test them helps the software to improve; Mozilla Corp’s fears that this will somehow bring discredit or damage on the reputation of Firefox are ill-considered and, by discouraging
    experimentation, discard some of the primary advantages of free software/open source.

    The Linux kernel shows that the world does not end if the trademark holder allows third-party developers freedom to innovate.

  5. Bubba Says:

    I’m not sure I see any real information in the above post. Ubuntu is shipping Firefox as delivered by Mozilla.

    So are all the other distributions – except Debian.

    The issue I see currently is that once we are past the installer there is no real benefit to running Ubuntu over Debian. My parents want stable and reliable for their email and browser systems – not a upgrade process that makes Gentoo’s “emerge -uvD world” once a year look like cake.

    Please, Mark. Your time has a value. Spend it on delivering a quality product to your customers – not on PR stunts like this.

  6. MrCopilot Says:

    The solution in my mind is a simple no-brainer. Firefox’s debian package maintainer should work for Mozilla. Mozilla keeps patches in house, approves for quality and can release FireFox under its own name in the debian format.

    Why is this not a viable option? Anyone?

    Alternative 2: FirefoxD, Problem Solved, No Splitting up brand Name Recognition like the current IceWeasel solution, No Trademark Problem.

    Why is this not a viable option? Mark? Moz? Debs?

  7. James Says:

    Good on Ubuntu.

    Debian needs to step back and look at the bigger picture. They’re just going to create confusion with this IceWeasel sillyness.

  8. its about time» Blog Archive » links for 2006-10-29 Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth » Blog Archive » Firefox and Ubuntu The firefox/debian quibble – and the ubuntu take on it all. (tags: blog firefox ubuntu debian) […]

  9. John H Says:

    Bubba: Have you read Mike Hommey’s post as linked by Mark? Ubuntu applies more patches to the vanilla Mozilla Firefox than Debian. It is not “shipping Firefox as delivered by Mozilla”.

    Personally I don’t see why this whole discussion needs to be so heated. Ubuntu is willing to include the non-free Firefox logo, so Mozilla is willing to let Ubuntu use the FF name. Debian is not willing to include the non-free Firefox logo, so Mozilla isn’t willing to let it use the FF name. That’s it. End of story.

    Ubuntu’s main driver, as I understand it, is to provide a user-friendly desktop based on free software. Given the priority of user-friendliness, a degree of flexing to keep the familiar name/logo for the leading free web browser makes sense. Debian’s number one priority, by contrast, is software freedom. Hence for Debian to flex on this issue would strike at the heart of its raison d’etre in a way that doesn’t apply to Ubuntu.

    Some people agree with Debian’s philosophy, some people don’t. It’s called choice. Or even – oh, what’s that word again? – freedom.

  10. Sanne Says:

    “an inability to agree on something … doesn’t mean that the other person is a bad person.”

    Thank you for your words, Mark. They are very important and very true and apply to almost every ocurrence of human interaction. We need more people who think and act like you.


  11. ljb Says:


    The only thing that keeping a trademark means is that people have to get permission to use the trademarked name. Everything else you wrote is blah, blah, blah. Keeping a trademark has absolutely nothing to do with approving code changes. You might argue that it is in the best interest of Mozilla that they prevent anyone from changing the code, Microsoft argues that it is in their best interest to prevent anyone from changing the code. In either case it is a matter of restricting freedoms and is completely irrelevant as it has nothing to do with the trademark.

    To Others Trying to be “Practical”:

    Keep in mind, if you mention Mozilla to most people they will think you mean Godzilla. Why didn’t they keep the name Netscape that even to this day has spectacular name recognition?

    You can still install Firefox(TM) if you want. Go to Synaptic and click the button. Easier than with Windows. If Firefox(TM) is open source, then anyone is free to fork the code anytime they want. If they want everyone else to use the Firefox name, then they have to accomodate everyone else. Don’t give me these arguments about the necessity of intellectual property demanding restrictions on freedom to encourage innovation. If they don’t want anyone else changing the code, they should change the license and distribute it in binary-only form.

    It’s not necessary to choose sides in this debate. Mozilla can have Firefox(TM) and Debian can have IceWeasel. Problem solved. No need to look at the “bigger picture”. Some people just don’t get it. From a practical point of view, consider that Firefox(TM) on Ubuntu is a pile of crap that keeps crashing, so there should be a fork anyway to do what Mozilla doesn’t want to do when it goes after the Windows dollars and ignores Linux.

  12. SMK Says:

    So what exactly was the deal that you brokered?

    Is Ubuntu passing its changes/patches for Mozilla products back to Mozilla first for approval?

  13. | Blog / Ein wenig mehr Ubuntu bei Ubuntu? browse Says:

    […] Nachdem Debian letztens die Umbenennung von Thunderbird und Firefox angek

  14. Malix Says:

    So what about this bug . This was reported on 2006-03-05 I try to help but apparently none is caring on this.

  15. Jan Kotuc Says:

    Why didn’t you do the same with Mozilla Thunderbird? Any plans to include the official icon?

  16. Around the web | Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth – Firefox and Ubuntu – sanity in the post, much less in the comments. (thanks Steve) […]

  17. goodwork ewd Says:


  18. Ari Says:

    My biggest problem is that IceWeasel is such a derogatory name. Imagine if I came up with my own distro of Debian and called it SkunkSmell or DirtyRat. I could do it but I don’t think Debian users will appreciate it.

  19. jonas Says:

    I recently realized that due to the upgrade of iceweasel many of my browser extensions and plugins will not operate properly. It takes away the ease and adds a bunch of garbage to waste time on.

  20. No Expert - Shuttleworth the Peacemaker Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth spoke out this mornig for his Ubuntu about the controversy between Debian and Mozilla over the use of Firefox trademarks. Mark announced that unlike Debian, Ubuntu has negotiated a deal with Mozilla that is acceptable to both parties, and so that Ubuntu will continue to package Firefox with their systems. […]

  21. Jabberwocky Says:

    What has keno gaming got to do with Ubuntu or Shuttleworth,
    i wonder ?

    Hm these viral blog spiders sure do get around.
    depositing their advertising vermin
    in inappropriate spaces ;-(
    (It’s such a desperate act that – cyber squatting one’s irrelevant links on someone else’s cyber-plot…
    Just like spam….must be the Lowest life forms of the cyber marketing food chain who do this…)

    get yourself a better editor/blog checker/blog gatekeeper, Mark 😉

  22. Timothy Says:

    Thank you Mark, for the sound comments on this issue.

    Someone mentioned that the icons and marketing/branding of firefox should be as available for reuse as the code itself. But think about the possible ramifications of that. If a windows user decides to try linux, looks around, and gets some random distribution (think special use distros like dsl, etc.) they could think “Oh, thats what Linux is about” and walk away disappointed. That is just what Firefox is trying to avoid.

    They have made some really great software, and a powerful web browser continues to bridge the gap between the linux and windows desktops. If everybody and his brother could make a “firefox” any way they wanted, the browsers popularity would be damaged, as well as the image of linux and open source in some circles. I for one am glad that such a great program is often a windows user’s “first taste” of open source. A slow, steady migration has begun, lets get behind the brands that make linux shine. That will only make free software better in the end.

  23. Top Unix News » Shuttleworth on Firefox and Ubuntu vs. Debian Says:

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  24. Steve Says:

    Ubuntu is great and I use it.

    Firefox is good too, but good or not, I don’t have much of a choice. I am forced to use it because Ubuntu doesn’t allow me to easily install it’s competitor Iceweasel.

    It’s not really about branding and you have too much business experience not to know that.

    Debian didn’t want to change the brand. Debian wanted to make changes to the functionality of Firefox which affected the Mozilla Corporation’s business model. Google needed a browser to be compatible with their web services ( Google mail etc. ) and they couldn’t rely on their rival Microsoft being helpful with regards to Internet Explorer. What was the solution? They poured money and resources into Firefox and the Mozilla foundation lapped it up – but there was a price to pay. Mozilla lost a little of their independence. I only need to see which the default search engine is on Firefox to know that.

    Debian wanted to cut out some of the corporate built in defaults and because of the open license the only way the Mozilla corporation could stop them was by calling them on the brand. So GNU forked the code and created Iceweasel, mostly the same Firefox code base with some of the corporate crud cut out and in some cases replaced.

    It wasn’t about icons or brand.

    Ubuntu is basking in a warm glow at the moment but that will change if you don’t allow your userbase to make their own choices.

    Ubuntu is a fantastic bundle of software and I am glad it offers me the opportunity to install non free components if I choose, but it is very disappointing that it does not also give me the opportunity to install the ‘free’ versions of software which I would prefer.

    I look forward to having the choice of installing Iceweasel and Icedove in future Ubuntu editions – if your arrangement with the Mozilla foundation prevents you from allowing this, let us know.

  25. 451 CAOS Theory » 451 CAOS Links - 2006.10.27 Says:

    […] Firefox and Ubuntu, here be dragons, Mark Shuttleworth (Blog) […]

  26. Sobre Mozilla, Debian, “trademarks” y libertades « Noticias del web Says:

    […] Mark Shuttleworth opina en su blog sobre el tema de Debian y Mozilla, claramente con intención de agradar a todo el mundo. Entre […]

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