Firefox branding is a burning issue

Mozilla gets into hot water with the open source fraternity over trademark issues

The Mozilla Foundation may face problems enforcing its conditions of use for the Firefox browser due to trademark issues.

Although it maintains a policy - which was recently criticised by many developers of the Debian Linux distribution - on how its trademarks are used, it does not appear to have registered the Firefox name in Australia and Germany.

In the UK and the US, the foundation has applied for the trademarks but approval is still pending. The Firefox brand exists as a registered trademark in Germany and the UK - owned by the Charlton Company and Firefox Communications, respectively. In the US, the latter has abandoned its claim to the trademark.

Apart from the free browser, the organisation has yet to apply for a trademark on its Thunderbird email client in any of these countries.

Although the foundation is not forced to register its trademarks, doing so would help prove ownership of the brands during any legal proceedings. In the absence of a registration, any dispute would come down to how well the trademark was generally known to be associated with any particular party.

The original statement detailing the Mozilla Foundation's creation in 2003 says Netscape-owner AOL would contribute "trademarks and related intellectual property" to the birth. However, Netscape is still registered in the UK and the US as owning the 'Mozilla' and 'Mozilla.org' trademarks. However, this is not the case in Australia or Germany.

The foundation is facing criticism from developers of the Debian Linux distribution (which distributes a version of Firefox), many of whom see the official Mozilla trademark policy as excessively prohibitive.

Their concerns revolve around whether Mozilla's trademark policy allows them to modify the software for updates and security patches, and still distribute it using its original name.

Many developers feel the trademark restrictions clash with Debian's Social Contract, which mandates Debian-distributed open source software to meet certain conditions.

Although a Mozilla Foundation spokesperson has emailed the group to "give Debian permission to use the Firefox logo and brand name", certain [Debian] developers have objected, citing the clause of the social contract which stipulates software licences must not be specific to Debian.

Debian's Linux distribution is commonly used as a base for other distributions such as Ubuntu.

One developer alleged the foundation had lost track of free software ideals.

Julien Blache, in an email to the Debian developer mailing list, said: "It seems to me that what the Mozilla Foundation really cares about is market share, and producing free software comes after that on their list of priorities. Their trademark policy is something that should not exist in a free software context."

The Mozilla spokesperson said one of the reasons the foundation was happy for the group to use the trademarks was Debian's reputation for quality. Its trademark policy says Mozilla needs "to ensure that its trademarks remain reliable indicators of quality and security".

He also pointed out that if other parties did not meet quality guidelines they could do away with the trademarks completely.

"I think it's clear that fundamentally, rebranding Firefox is not a complicated or lengthy operation," he said.

The issue has not been resolved and is being debated at length by the Debian community.