The Iceweasel’s Tale

Tonight: three short stories from the free software/culture frontiers.

1. The Iceweasel Cometh

Firefox vs IceweaselI’ve been using Firefox contentedly since January 2004, but it now appears I will have to get used to calling it “Iceweasel” instead. This follows a dispute between the Mozilla Corporation and the makers of the version of Linux that runs my home PC, Debian.

To cut a (very, very) long story a little shorter (non-geeks feel free to skip a few paragraphs; I’ll tell you when you can start reading again): Debian has a strong (verging on fanatical) commitment to “Free software”. That is, software that one is free to use, modify and redistribute (“free as in freedom”, rather than price). Most Linux distributions flex these principles a little, but Debian’s aim is to ensure that all software forming part of “the Debian system” is free.

While the Firefox program itself is Free software, the Firefox logo is subject to licence terms that restrict people’s right to modify it. Hence it is, by Debian’s definition, “non-Free”. Hence it can’t be included in Debian. Hence Debian uses a custom logo that consists of a blue planet with no fox round it.

Mozilla have now stated that if Debian is not prepared to include the official, non-Free branding, then it must also stop using the word “Firefox” for the version included in Debian. As Debian is not willing to back down on its fundamental guiding principles, it now appears almost inevitable that Firefox will be renamed “Iceweasel” (with Thunderbird becoming “Icedove”).

This has led to a weeks-long orgy of flaming, trolling and general argy-bargy between the opposing camps, with opinion divided between those who see the Debian developers as inflexible fanatics who can’t see the wood for the trees, and those who regard Mozilla as having lost sight of the spirit of Free software, even if Firefox still complies with the letter of the “Free software” concept.

For some clarity and sanity from a Debian developer’s perspective, I recommend this post by Firefox co-maintainer Mike Hommey, in which he answers some of the wilder allegations that have been made recently about Debian’s behaviour.

(NB: non-geeks, feel free to start reading again)

Now, I had been assuming that most neutral observers would think that Iceweasel was a singularly stupid name – petty geek humour at its worst. But when I mentioned it to my wife (a confirmed non-geek), expecting her to roll her eyes at the sheer stupidity of renaming Firefox to Iceweasel, she immediately pronounced the new name to be “gorgeous”, much better than “Firefox”, and when could we get it installed on our computer, please?

But this still leaves the question of why anyone would care that much about the Firefox logo, for heaven’s sake, being “non-Free”. Why does all this “Free software” malarky matter, anyway?

Well, to get some idea of this, let’s move to the opposite end of the software freedom spectrum, as we enter…

2. The Twilight Zone of Vista licensing

The GNU General Public License (GPL), legal foundation of much of the Free software world, observes in its preamble that, in contrast to the GPL, “the licenses for most software are designed to take away your freedom to share and change it” – and, one might add, even your freedom to install and use it.

Microsoft’s new edition of Windows, Windows Vista, is due to ship in January 2007 (a mere four years late, with many planned features still unimplemented, but let’s let that pass). Now, Microsoft’s licences for Windows have always been rather restrictive, but the new Vista licence contains a couple of humdingers.

First, if you buy a retail version of Vista, you will only be able to transfer it to another computer once. If you are unfortunate enough to have two computers in succession malfunction, then you’ll just have to buy a new Vista licence for the third machine. In contrast, the current Windows licence – which is bad enough in its own way – allows unlimited transfers, provided you fully uninstall from the previous machine each time.

Second, you will only be able to transfer your Vista licence to one other person, once. They will not have a right to transfer the licence on to somebody else. What this means is that if you buy a secondhand computer with Vista preinstalled, you will not be able to sell or give it to somebody else without buying a new licence.

The sad thing is, these absurd restrictions are highly unlikely to inhibit people from buying Vista, or PCs with Vista preinstalled. However, sooner or later people are going to find their PCs are getting locked down by Microsoft’s licensing validation software, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens at that point.

But this is a vivid illustration of the gulf in philosophy between Free software and the proprietary model: “Iceweasel” may seem like a silly overreaction to a marginal problem, but in the end the alternative is a situation in which perfectly reasonable behaviour (such as passing on a used PC to somebody else without needing to pay a licence fee) is prohibited.

This brings us to the third, and final, of our moral fables for the day.

3. Reading the future

Earlier today, Craig posted a short but seemingly-enthusiastic notice for the Sony Reader, saying:

This device will do to the paperback what the iPod did to the walkman.

As I said in the comments to Craig’s post:

I assume you meant by your statement, “This device will lock increasing numbers of people into DRMed, platform-specific means of reading, and make it next-to impossible – indeed, illegal – to share, donate or re-sell books”. No?

I then recommended Richard Stallman’s short essay, The Right to Read, in which RMS speculates on a future world in which all books are supplied in electronic, digitally locked-down form, with unlicensed reading of somebody else’s books a criminal offence.

While RMS has no doubt exaggerated his vision of the future a little, the basic principle remains that a system in which physical books are replaced by proprietary, electronic formats will be one in which the freedom to read and share ideas is seriously constrained. If you don’t believe me, then I suggest you try giving away half your iTunes collection to the poor.

RMS also makes a sharp point about the cultural and psychological attitudes that are inculcated in us concerning copyright issues, and how this might apply to digital books:

Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong – something that only pirates would do.

And the lesson is…?

…having to put up with Firefox turning into “Iceweasel” is a small price to pay, compared with the world of digital control that Microsoft and Sony would love to create, a world in which those controls extend to every aspect of our culture from software to music to reading.

The other lesson is: if you want to upgrade your operating system without incurring the hardware costs that will be demanded by Vista or the onerous legal terms under which it will be licensed – and if you fancy giving “Iceweasel” a spin – then why not give Ubuntu a try? Ubuntu is based on Debian, but is generally regarded as more user-friendly. It is probably the most popular version of Linux for desktop PCs at the moment. If you don’t have a broadband connection, they’ll post an installation disk to you for nothing.

Or if you don’t fancy that: just go and buy yourself a secondhand paperback, read it and pass it on to a friend. While you still can.

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One Response to The Iceweasel’s Tale

  1. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » The gospel’s political side-effects

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