Obnoxious Firefox Licensing

Mozilla Firefox comes in many localized versions for many different languages, which is a good thing.

Mozilla Firefox has built-in spell-checking, which is also a good thing.

So, for example, if you download the installer for English (US) or for Lithuanian and install it and go write an email in GMail or edit a Wikipedia article in one of these languages, you’ll immediately see your spelling errors. This makes perfect sense.

But if you download an installer localized for English (UK), Catalan or Hebrew, you won’t see your spelling errors. The Firefox binary has spell-checking capabilities, but the installer doesn’t include the actual dictionary. Firefox-compatible dictionaries for these languages exist, and they are licensed as Free Software (GPL or LGPL), and you can add them manually after installing (right-click -> Languages -> Add Dictionaries), but here comes the ridiculous part: The guys behind getfirefox.com refuse to include those dictionaries in the installer. The reason, apparently, is that to be included in the installer, the dictionary must be 300% compatible with Firefox’s license, because Firefox is tri-licensed as GPL/LGPL/MPL, and a dictionary that is GPL-only is not good enough.

It is hard enough to convince people to install Firefox in the first place; convincing them to install additional dictionaries, plug-ins, add-ons etc. tends to frustrate them even more. Contrary to the belief which is popular among Firefox power users, most people are not add-on junkies and don’t right-click everywhere. So, even though Firefox users in London, Barcelona and Jerusalem can see Firefox menus in their respective languages, they have dead-weight spell-checking code on their hard drives, because they didn’t get a spelling dictionary in the installation, and many of them don’t even know that a Firefox-compatible spelling dictionary for their language exists.

Is this obnoxious licensing requirement really required? Isn’t Free Software licensing supposed to make distributing software easier?

When i told my wife Hadar about it, she said that it is as ridiculous as the stuff i tell her about DRM.

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13 Responses to “Obnoxious Firefox Licensing”


  1. 1 MeahevServi 2009-05-09 at 01:13

    I would like to see decently-working spell checker for Serbian. For Hebrew, I would be ready to pay for it.

    How could they make a good spell-checking utility for Hebrew when they themselves don’t always know what’s the correct spelling for each Hebrew word?

    Just consider the Hebrew word “mitzva(h)”. What’s the absolutely correct spelling for it, without usage of “dots and dashes”? מצוה ?מיצוה ?מצווה? Who knows? It could be just about anything! :)))

    Oh, Lord, why hadn’t you given those fine people mr lttrs? Especially a few of vwls! :)))

    Yeah, I’m kidding a bit, but it really could be confusing, even for the native-born Israelis…

    • 2 aharoni 2009-05-09 at 08:34

      If you use Firefox, right-click and select Languages->Add dictionaries. You can find Hebrew, Serbian, Croatian and many more languages there. The Hebrew spelling checker there is very good. What do you think about the Serbian one?

      The right Hebrew spelling of the word mitzva without the vowel points (niqqud) is מצווה. This is right according to the rules of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. These rules are mostly simple and logical, but the very weird thing is that they are not taught in Israeli schools. That’s right: Israeli children do not learn spelling rules in school. The result is that most books, websites, newspapers and personal letters and emails are not written in a consistent spelling. This is quite terrible and i am slowly working to fix it.

  2. 3 MeahevServi 2009-05-09 at 17:14

    I couldn’t test it for Serbian and Croatian, it says: “This add-on is for older versions of Firefox”.

    I tested it for various spellings of “mitzva” and it did found incorrectly spelled words. But…

    My point is: would you, for sure, know how to spell the word “mitzva” if you didn’t a priori (by previous learning) know what was the correct spelling for it? Of course, you know how to spell “mitzva”, but do you know it “by heart” (by memorizing the correct spelling), or by applying some rules at the moment of spelling? I think you need to know it in both ways, partially by applying the rules, partially by heart – in to many cases. Please, correct me if I’m wrong.

    You see, the orthography of my language is phonemic, which means every phoneme (sound) is represented with only one grapheme (letter). And vice versa. That’s good for me, ‘cos I don’t have to remember spelling by heart for most of the words. But, it’s also phonological, which means there are many different variations of the same word, due to changes made by grammatical declination, gender and other nasty things found in non-etymological languages.

    So, to determine what’s the correct spelling in my language largely depends on the semantic meaning of a certain word in a given sentence, and that’s something modern computers still can’t handle very well.

    Maybe I’m wrong. I am certainly not an expert in linguistics. I’m not even very familiar to it, but, until I see it with my own eyes, I don’t believe there is a good spell checking utility for the non-etymological languages…

    • 4 aharoni 2009-05-09 at 17:46

      The Serbian spell-checker doesn’t work?! Send them an email! I had a few minor problems with the Hebrew spell checker, so i sent an email to the guys behind it and they were very nice and fixed them. Maybe you’ll have luck with the Serbian guys, too. It should be a very easy fix. Also, i see that the comments on the page of the Serbian dictionary point to a version that is supposed to work in Fx 3.0. Maybe you can try that.

      As for your comments about Hebrew spelling – you are perfectly right. Both the reading and the writing of Hebrew is analytical – one has to think beyond the mere letters. It’s harder to learn to read or write Hebrew than many other languages. Most European languages are much less analytical (English and, to a lesser extent, French are notable exceptions). That’s the heritage we got from the Bible, though, and few people would be bold enough to make a deep reform in the language of the Bible.

      I am emphasizing the, because some language communities were very reluctant about spelling reforms, because their spelling reflected the spelling of a classic Bible translation to their language. Russian went through such a struggle a couple of times, and the English spelling is still a terrible mess partly because of King James’ heritage. But these were translations, so eventually they made some adjustments; we happen to have the language of the Bible. That’s something that even secular Jews are reluctant to meddle with.

      The funny thing is that a significant number of medieval Hebrew texts actually deviate quite strongly from the Biblical grammar, and some respected scholars of today say that if it those medieval sages could deviate from the Bible for their convenience, so can we. But they are a small minority and i don’t see a major reform happening any time soon. What may happen, though, is these things:

      1. Minor adjustments in the current spelling, so that it will stay in line with the Bible, but will be easier to learn.
      2. Better language education – the current state of Israeli education, and language education in particular, is quite poor.
      3. Modern technology can make writing easier. I am talking about better keyboards, digital dictionaries, etc.

      You are also right about the fact that modern utilities cannot perfectly handle Hebrew. hspell, the spelling checker used in Firefox, OpenOffice, GMail and many other programs only checks on the word level and cannot check the sentence. The spelling checker in Microsoft Office isn’t much better in checking context and has a few significant problems of its own. It’s still much better than nothing, though.

  3. 5 MeahevServi 2009-05-10 at 14:36

    Thank you for clearing things a bit about Hebrew orthography, in consideration to the original Bible, I didn’t know that. :)

    But, when it’s about me mailing the guys developing spell checker for the Serbian language… This is a good moment to explain some differences between the Serbs and the Jews.

    Although I think you’d probably be very surprised how much our two nations are similar, in so many ways, there are also quite a few serious distinctions between us.

    For instance, if an average Jewish Joe would stumble upon something that needs fixing, he, most likely, would be thinking: “I have to contact the right authority for this to be fixed; if I don’t do that, maybe no one will, so, when a next time I might need it, it still could be broken.”.
    When an average Serbian gets into the same situation, he, probably, thinks something like this: “Shit, this doesn’t work, AGAIN, why somebody didn’t notify someone to fix it, already? Well, I ain’t doing that either; why should I, why me?!”.

    Yep, that’s us. That’s how’s the things done in Serbia.

    Cheers!

    P.S.
    Yes, I am aware that my conditional sentences could seriously hurt your soul, but I’m to tired to remember how are they exactly constructed, so I’ll just live them like that, hoping, in good faith, you’ll get through. :D

    • 6 aharoni 2009-05-10 at 16:31

      if an average Jewish Joe would stumble upon something that needs fixing, he, most likely, would be thinking: “I have to contact the right authority for this to be fixed; if I don’t do that, maybe no one will, so, when a next time I might need it, it still could be broken.”.

      I am not so sure about the average Jewish Joe, but i think like that very often and actually do something about it.

      If you don’t contact these Serbian guys, maybe i will :)

  4. 7 gervmarkham 2012-03-19 at 21:42

    If someone makes a dictionary and licenses it under the GPL (as opposed to the LGPL), what do you think they mean by that? Some would argue it’s hard to say, but Mozilla’s view is that it means they only want the dictionary used in GPLed apps. Now legally, it might be that we could work around that, and use it in a non-GPLed app like Firefox anyway. But we don’t, because we respect other people’s licensing intentions.

    So, at least for GPLed dictionaries, your request here is equivalent to asking Mozilla to tell the dictionary authors “we don’t care what you said, we’re using your stuff anyway”.

    LGPLed dictionaries are somewhat of a different story. Mozilla doesn’t currently ship LGPLed libraries by policy, because we want to keep the licensing terms for the Mozilla codebase simple. This policy may change in the future.

    • 8 aharoni 2012-03-19 at 22:13

      The few spelling dictionary developers that i know in person are happy that their GPL-only dictionaries are used in Firefox. They are not so happy about the fact that their dictionary has to be installed manually: If i recall the statistics correctly, about 45% of Israeli Firefox users download the Hebrew-localized version and only 3% install the Hebrew spelling dictionary. So much talent and hard work remains underused, and not because people don’t want it, but because they aren’t aware of its existence. I love customizing my browser and i LOVE spelling dictionaries – and i didn’t even know that there’s one for Hebrew in Firefox until Tomer told me.

      I just fail to understand how can anything be wrong in shipping software that is GPL with software that is GPL + something else, especially if it ships with a notice that says “Firefox is GPL/MPL/LGPL, but the dictionary is GPL-only”.

      Hey, Apple ships a whole lot of GPL software on the otherwise horribly proprietary iPhone and i don’t remember anyone complaining. (Correct me if i’m wrong.)

      • 9 gervmarkham 2012-03-19 at 22:25

        “The few spelling dictionary developers that i know in person are happy that their GPL-only dictionaries are used in Firefox.”

        Then tell them that the GPL was not a sensible choice for the license if they wanted their dictionary to be usable in non-GPL apps!

        Dictionaries are not static lists of words; it is not entirely clear that the GPL-ness of a dictionary does not affect the software which uses it.

        “I just fail to understand how can anything be wrong in shipping software that is GPL with software that is GPL + something else, especially if it ships with a notice that says “Firefox is GPL/MPL/LGPL, but the dictionary is GPL-only”.”

        You need to understand better a) what multiple-licensing actually means, b) the effect of the MPL 2 on the situation, and c) what it means for something to be under the GPL.

        Important point: Firefox binaries are shipped under the MPL only, not the GPL.

        Explaining how all this works is beyond the scope of this comment. :-|

        “Hey, Apple ships a whole lot of GPL software on the otherwise horribly proprietary iPhone and i don’t remember anyone complaining. (Correct me if i’m wrong.)”

        You’re wrong. :-) (Example, please?)

        • 10 aharoni 2012-03-19 at 22:31

          > You need to understand better a) what multiple-licensing actually means, b) the effect of the MPL 2 on the situation, and c) what it means for something to be under the GPL.

          I think that i understand the last part, but i don’t claim to understand the first part.

          And i completely fail to understand the legal difference between downloading Firefox in one package with a dictionary and adding a dictionary to a downloaded Firefox. But again, i’m not a lawyer.

          >> “Hey, Apple ships a whole lot of GPL software on the otherwise horribly proprietary iPhone and i don’t remember anyone complaining. (Correct me if i’m wrong.)”

          > You’re wrong. :-) (Example, please?)

          I played with a friend’s iPhone and

        • 11 gervmarkham 2012-03-19 at 22:39

          The difference is about distribution. Software licenses which depend on copyright control distribution, because it involves making a copy. Distributing some GPLed and non-GPLed code as part of the same application is a violation of the license of the GPLed part.

          However, combining the two on your hard disk is not distribution. It may possibly be against the license (I’m not certain; I doubt it, because there are no restrictions on use) but even if it was, it would be practically unenforceable.

        • 12 aharoni 2012-03-19 at 23:01

          > Then tell them that the GPL was not a sensible choice for the license if they wanted their dictionary to be usable in non-GPL apps!

          They don’t want it to be usable in non-free apps, which also means that they don’t want it to be combined with non-copyleft apps. And i support that. I don’t think that pre-installing an add-on is the same as linking, especially if the licensing is explained in the installation wizard, but i am not a lawyer.

          > You need to understand better a) what multiple-licensing actually means, b) the effect of the MPL 2 on the situation, and c) what it means for something to be under the GPL.

          I think that i understand (c), but i really don’t claim to understand (a), and probably never will.

          And i completely fail to understand the legal difference between downloading Firefox in one package with a dictionary and adding a dictionary to a downloaded Firefox. But again, i’m not a lawyer.

          I kinda understand the problem with distributing MP3 codecs with Linux, for example, even though i find it completely silly. However, lots of people will notice that they can’t play MP3s and will try to fix it, but very few people will notice that they don’t have a spelling dictionary for their language, even though they will probably enjoy it when they will get one.

          >> “Hey, Apple ships a whole lot of GPL software on the otherwise horribly proprietary iPhone and i don’t remember anyone complaining. (Correct me if i’m wrong.)”

          > You’re wrong. :-) (Example, please?)

          I don’t have an iPhone now to check it, but one day i played with a friend’s iPhone and entered a menu somewhere deep in the “Settings” or “Help”, and there was an item called “Open Source licenses”. When i clicked it, it said something like “This device includes software covered by the following licenses:”, followed by the full text of GPL and some other famous free licenses. Maybe i am wrong and these licenses were for manually installed apps? I can’t be sure now.

  5. 13 gervmarkham 2012-03-20 at 13:21

    “They don’t want it to be usable in non-free apps, which also means that they don’t want it to be combined with non-copyleft apps. And i support that.”

    Firefox is not a (fully) copyleft app. The MPL’s copyleft is what’s called a “weak” copyleft – it’s file-level, as opposed to application-level. You can add proprietary bits to Firefox without violating the license.

    So if the people making GPLed dictionaries don’t want their dictionaries used in apps with proprietary bits, then by the same legal mechanism they are also saying that they don’t want them combined with Firefox or its derivatives either.


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