Free software? You can't just give it away

Who could possibly be upset with the Mozilla Foundation for giving Firefox away?

One of my roles at the Foundation relates to copyright licensing. I'm responsible for making sure that the software we distribute respects the conditions of the free software licences of the underlying code. I'm also the first point of contact for licensing questions. Most of the time, this job involves helping people who want to use our code in their own products understand the terms, or advising project members who want to integrate code from another project into our codebase. Occasionally, however, something a little more unusual comes along.

A little while ago, I received an email from a lady in the Trading Standards department of a large northern town. They had encountered businesses which were selling copies of Firefox, and wanted to confirm that this was in violation of our licence agreements before taking action against them.

I wrote back, politely explaining the principles of copyleft – that the software was free, both as in speech and as in price, and that people copying and redistributing it was a feature, not a bug. I said that selling verbatim copies of Firefox on physical media was absolutely fine with us, and we would like her to return any confiscated CDs and allow us to continue with our plan for world domination (or words to that effect). Unfortunately, this was not well received. Her reply was incredulous:

“I can't believe that your company would allow people to make money from something that you allow people to have free access to. Is this really the case?”, she asked. “If Mozilla permit the sale of copied versions of its software, it makes it virtually impossible for us, from a practical point of view, to enforce UK anti-piracy legislation, as it is difficult for us to give general advice to businesses over what is/is not permitted.”

I felt somewhat unnerved at being held responsible for the disintegration of the UK anti-piracy system. Who would have thought giving away software could cause such difficulties? However, given that the free software movement is unlikely collectively to decide to go proprietary in order to make her life easier, I had another go, using examples like Linux and the office suite to show that it's not just Firefox which is throwing a spanner in the works.

She then asked me to identify myself, so that she could confirm that I was authorised to speak for the Mozilla Foundation on this matter. I wondered if she was imagining nefarious copyright-infringing street traders taking a few moments off from shouting about the price of bananas to pop into an Internet cafe, crack a router and intercept her email.

However, the more I thought about it, providing a sensible reply to that question is somewhat difficult. How could I prove I was authorised to speak for the Foundation? We're a virtual organisation – we have three employees, one in Vancouver, one in Virginia, and one in leafy North London, with no office or registered trading address in the UK. As far as the Mozilla part of my life goes, my entire existence is electronic.

In the end, I just had to say that the fact that I am capable of receiving and replying to email addressed to would have to be sufficient. She would just have to take it on trust that I was not a router-cracking banana merchant. She must have done so, as I never heard from her again.

While the identity verification aspect of this incident is amusing, what is more serious is the set of assumptions her emails implied. It demonstrates how the free software model disrupts the old proprietary way of doing things, where copying was theft and you were guilty until proven innocent.

In a world where both types of software exist, greater discernment is required on the part of the enforcers. I hope this is the beginning of the end of any automatic assumption that sharing software with your neighbour must be a crime.

(C) 2006 The Times

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