Firebird Database Project Admin Ann Harrison Interviewed

by ALEX BISHOP | It's been a long and intense week since announced that the Phoenix browser has been renamed Firebird, to the dismay of much of the Firebird database community. In this interview with MozillaZine, Ann Harrison, an administrator of the Firebird database project and a partner in IBPhoenix, gives her thoughts on the dispute.

What is your role in the Firebird database project?

I'm an administrator of the Firebird project and a partner in IBPhoenix — a company that provides support, documentation, and services to Firebird users and also users of the InterBase database.

A little bit of history here. Borland owns the InterBase copyright and released one version under a variant of the Mozilla license in July of 2000. Borland declined to allow write access to "outsiders" and to accept contributions from them — us. Mark O'Donohue and a few others who wanted to work on the code created a fork and called it Firebird. All work on InterBase Open Edition has stopped. Firebird is an active project.

And some even earlier history. InterBase was created by Jim Starkey, who designed it, wrote the first version of the engine, and directed the development of the next two versions — writing a great deal of the code himself. Jim's my husband. As soon as Interbase Software Corporation was self-supporting I quit my job and joined it. That's about 1985. I'm a wizard debugger, but not much of a coder so I did a lot of other stuff in the company, including baking birthday cakes — gets to be a challenge when you've got 50 people or so.

Even after we sold the company (a long story), I stayed interested in the project and the people who use the database, so I joined the self-support e-mail list and tried to explain how things should work. When Borland decided to spin InterBase off as an independent open source company, I was asked to be CEO. Well, interim CEO. That was early in 2000. Then the deal fell apart and I'm still around, debugging a bit, trying to explain how things are supposed to work. If there were a way to bake virtual birthday cakes, I'd be doing that.

What is the relationship between the Firebird database project, the FirebirdSQL Foundation and IBPhoenix?

The project is an independent entity on SourceForge. I can't say enough for SourceForge. Without them, a shoe-string project like ours could not exist. Borland still own the copyright to the original sources. The individual developers own the copyright to their contributions.

IBPhoenix are the blasted remnants of that independent open source company Borland tried to set up. Our intention from the beginning was to provide support, documentation, services, tested kits, etc. That's what we're doing, though on a much more modest scale than we once expected. Paul Beach has taken over as CEO — a big title in a very small company — and I do general technical stuff. Most of our work comes from InterBase — Borland introduced a couple of really catastrophic bugs that corrupt databases. Fixed in Firebird, of course. My major job is rescuing data from those databases — turning hamburgers into cows.

The FirebirdSQL Foundation is a non-profit corporation in Australia which through membership fees, donations and sponsorship, raises money and distributes it as grants to developers. The grants aren't generous — a couple hundred dollars US each month — but they make up part of the income that our developers forgo to spend their time on Firebird. Mark O'Donohue is President of the FirebirdSQL Foundation.

You can find more information on the foundation at

Why do you disagree with Phoenix being renamed to Firebird?

Basically, because the users of Firebird object. Our users develop applications based on Firebird and other open source components. That's their bread and butter. When they say that something will damage them, I have an obligation to respond.

The project admins didn't go looking for Mozilla. Our users told us about the name change and we moved to support them.

And I've spent most of the last week responding to people who read about this on Slashdot and call me a spammer, a terrorist, and a sucker of moose balls. And a lot of people who are upset in a perfectly civil way. To all of them, I've said, "The developers who depend on Firebird for their livelihood feel threatened and upset. My responsibility as a project administrator is to help them."

I guess I see this as two different questions. The first is "can the Mozilla group take the name?" and the second is "should one open source organization appropriate another's name?" I guess my answer to the second is pretty obvious. It's not for Mozilla to decide whether taking the name damages us. At least not for them alone. If someone takes your car and says, "You don't need that. Walking is good for you." does that make him right?

The answer to the first question — "can the Mozilla group take the name?" — is less clear. We're a small volunteer organization — even the people working for IBPhoenix have second jobs so we can eat. We're up against AOL's legal team. The law is on our side, but in the judicial system, at least here in the States, money does matter.

Do you believe that deliberately and maliciously stole your name?

No, of course not. Well, deliberately, yes. Malicious, no. Callus is about as far as I would go. They were in a bind, they needed a name. Firebird suggested itself from the Phoenix image. They did know we exist — see for comments Asa Dotzler made about us last December. Since they had not been aware of our project until they started the name search, they probably assumed that no one else knew or cared. It wasn't their intention to harm us — they just didn't care.

There are several computer-related projects named Firebird. Many have pointed to the Firebird BBS project, which has existed for longer than the Firebird database project. If it is okay for a database project to use the same name as a BBS project, how is it different when a browser project also wishes to use that name?

Actually, if you discount web design firms and a company that distributes bulk-email, there aren't a lot of other Firebirds in the software world. Firebird Software Ltd. made 8-bit games and was sold and closed in 1990. There's a Firebird Financial software company, but their products are not called "Firebird", just the company. Company names aren't the same as trademarks.

The Firebird BBS project from Taiwan uses "Firebird BBS" as their mark. Pontiac uses "Pontiac Firebird" as a mark. If Mozilla wants to use "Mozilla Firebird" — that may be acceptable in a legal sense. They can't shorten it. Since "Mozilla Firebird" doesn't flow trippingly off the tongue, it will be shortened in normal usage. That is a legal conflict. We think that "Mozilla Firebird" fails the second half of the question — it's not in the spirit of open source.

Initially, IBPhoenix and the Firebird Admins encouraged their supporters to email many senior Mozilla developers and post in several Mozilla-related forums. Why was this approach chosen?

Actually, our initial approach was directly to Asa Dotzler. His responses were consistent and unyielding — our legal staff (AOL's legal staff) says we can and we've done it and that's the end of it. I exchanged several e-mails with Asa Dotzler, as did several other project admins. None of us got any indication that he heard, understood, or considered our comments.

By then, I realized that the name change from Phoenix to Firebird had been discussed in the MozillaZine forums at least since December of last year without anyone having contacted us. The only reason I could think of for the absence of communication was that the Mozilla people thought we were an inactive project and there would be no one to contact. If that were the case, then raising the Firebird project's profile would help. I thought it likely that most of the senior developers on Mozilla were unaware of the impact of the name change on another open source project and that a polite mail advocacy campaign from Firebird users would help them understand.

I wrote the original piece on, posted it, and was appalled to come in the next morning and realize how overwhelming the response had been. I wanted to raise the project profile, not raze the forum. The second message, removing all addresses — except Ms. Baker's and Mr. Dotzler's — went up immediately. I never intended to spam the Mozilla developers.

As an aside, I haven't heard from anyone who received a flame from the Firebird users, only from people who read the Slashdot article. I've had a look at the forum on MozillaZine — not thorough — and found the Firebird (database) advocates to be no less rational than the Mozilla advocates.

More recently, the Firebird database community has been asked to focus on just Mitchell Baker and Asa Dotzler and post messages to the database project's own Firebird-general mailing list. You also take pains to appeal for civility and politeness. Why was the strategy changed?

Ms. Baker is the Chief Lizard Wrangler. Complaints come with that territory. Mr. Dotzler is identified with the announcement and has been the usual defender of the decision. They seem to me to be the people who are most likely to be able to affect the decision. That's why we're recommending that our users contact them.

As I said earlier, we were just trying to raise the project profile. That had been accomplished — with a bang. An unexpectedly astonishingly loud bang. I've been around the software business a long time. I should have known that for some people, asking them to share their thoughts in e-mail is asking for a flame. I just doubted that we had any of those in our group. That's why the plea for civility. It's an insult to most of our users, but it may be a necessary reminder for a few.

Have you sought any legal advice? Have any legal professionals advised you that is infringing on your trademark?

As I said, we don't have any outside funding. We don't have a legal staff to lean on. Some of us have spouses/friends/parents who are lawyers and of course we've asked them. And yes, from their answers and from the law they cite, it does seem to us that these points are quite clear.

A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others.

The use of such word, phrase, etc. in trade constitutes a claim of trademark. There is no requirement for registration or using any symbol, though both do signal to others that this is a mark that will be defended.

Trademark law distinguishes a number of categories of use. A dry cleaner could call itself Apple Cleaners without conflict, but a computer called the Appel McIntosh would be a violation. Software is a category. Browsers, databases, compilers, etc. are all part of the software category.

The only way to narrow the scope of a trademark — to restrict it to database management software for example — is to register the mark and stipulate that it will be used in a restricted area. An unregistered mark is assumed to be for the whole category.

A trademark must be used and defended. Conflicting uses within the category can invalidate even a registered trademark.

Trademark law is international, but the trademark must be defended in each country where it is used. Before the internet, that was reasonably simple. Now, marks are used world-wide, but must be defended country by country.

But we're not interested in a legal case. That's not what open source is about. We believe that we have a prior right to the Firebird mark, that other projects shouldn't poach, and that when the heat dies down, the Mozilla Organization will see the merit of our position and choose a different name. Oracle comes to mind.

Several sites, including LinuxWorld,, Slashdot and have published articles on the conflict. How do you feel about the media coverage of the dispute?

To be frank, I haven't read any of the articles. I've got a mangled database I'm trying to resurrect and I've been answering e-mails from people who object to my attempt to raise our profile.

What response have you received from

Almost none. Brendan Eich joined the discussion on Firebird-general and seems to understand the problem a bit. I've had private e-mail from individuals involved with Mozilla, which generally started out with their being offended and ended with their understanding our position better. But nothing from anyone suggesting that they are reviewing their decision.

What should do to satisfy the Firebird database community?

Pick another name. Other Firebird admins suggested rewording that to "recognize they have made a mistake in their choice of new name for their lightweight browser product and choose an alternative that doesn't conflict with, at least, an existing well established open source project."

We don't want money (though money is nice). We don't expect public apologies or an agreement to use only our database management software or an appeal to AOL Time Warner to standardize on Firebird. We don't want this name conflict to continue and we don't want any part of a legal fight.

Some people have accused the Firebird database community of exploiting this situation to gain publicity. What is your response to these allegations?

Well, we certainly didn't goad Mozilla into changing the name of the Phoenix project to Firebird. For myself, I prefer to grow our reputation based on the success of projects that use Firebird. Establishing a reputation as a spammer, a terrorist, and a sucker of moose balls has never been one of my life goals.

Did Mrs. O'Leary's cow start the Great Chicago Fire to promote her milk? Many of the people who have e-mailed me mention that they'll never use our database and will recommend the same to others. We certainly didn't work to get that reaction.

What will your next steps be?

That depends largely on the Mozilla Organization. We hope and trust that over this weekend emotions will have died down and that they will recognize their error and correct it.

Sorry to have been so long-winded, and thank you for this opportunity to explain the Firebird (database) position. Any of your readers who would like more information are welcome to contact me — — or the general Firebird discussion list

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