Christopher Blizzard of Speaks on the Firebird Naming Conflict

by ALEX BISHOP | Christopher Blizzard has been working with Mozilla since the source code was released. In this interview, the author of the Mozilla branding guidelines gives an insight into's position on the Firebird naming conflict.

How involved were you in the decision to rename Phoenix to Firebird?

I was involved as much as the rest of was. That is, Asa gathered most of the suggestions for names. If you have a large list, you have to whittle it down to a few reasonable candidates and then get those cleared by trademark lawyers. That's what happened in this case. Asa came back to staff with a list of suggestions and we chose the one that made sense and cleared the legal hurdles. Firebird was the name we chose.

A recent CNET article states that is backing down from using the Firebird name. How much truth is there in this claim?

We're still going to use the project name Mozilla Firebird, so the article is false. I think that's pretty clear from our branding document. Just to be clear, Mozilla Firebird is going to be the name of the pre-releases that we're going of the-browser-formerly-known-as-Phoenix before it becomes our primary platform for delivery of the Mozilla platform. Once it's our mainline build it's going to be Mozilla Browser.

That being said, as long as the project exists the Firebird name will be in use, just like SeaMonkey is still in use. Note, though, that most people don't call our current browser SeaMonkey so you probably won't see it in wide use once that transition takes place.

To what extent was the branding strategy influenced by the complaints of the Firebird database community?

It wasn't, really. The branding strategy has been in the works since late last year, well before Phoenix was even on our radar. The only part of that document that was really affected by Firebird database folks was the careful use of "Mozilla Firebird" instead of just "Firebird" and the clear distinction of a "project" vs a "product". We've been talking about using "Mozilla Browser" or something similar for quite a while now.

Do you think that should have contacted the Firebird database project before announcing the new name?

Hindsight being 20/20, sure.

To be honest, though, I don't think that anyone on staff thought that they would care. There isn't room for confusion (I mean, who is going to confuse a database and a browser? I think my mom can tell the difference), there isn't any infringing use, and the name is in wide use outside of both of our projects, including previous use in the software realm. We're simply using a name that's been used over and over again in the past. We've been called all sorts of nasty names over the past few months, being accused of all kinds of malice and ill intent. I can assure you this is not the case. The reality is that if we're guilty of anything it's being a bit apathetic.

According to some reports, in the days immediately after the new name was announced, either ignored emails sent by Firebird database community or responded unhelpfully. Some have even suggested that this left the database project's leaders with little choice but to organise the mass emailing campaign. How did respond to these early messages and could a better reaction have avoided the large-scale protests?

If I remember correctly, they went from zero to mail bombing in less than 60 seconds. I don't remember there being very many, if any, cordial messages at the beginning and those were quickly lost in the cacophony of form letters and unreasonable demands. It's interesting to point out that our biggest problem at the beginning was telling who was in charge over there. We certainly couldn't tell from the incoming email.

I would also flip that question on its head. Would have responded better if they hadn't engaged in a mail bombing campaign? I know we would have. But what's done is done.

Some people have accused of having an arrogant and dismissive attitude towards the Firebird database community. What is your response to these allegations?

That it's an excellent example of argumentum ad hominem.

Did any negotiations with the Firebird database community take place, officially or otherwise?

Sure, there has been some official back and forth, mostly between Mitchell and some of the database folks.

Many media articles have credited Jonathan Walther of the Debian project with resolving the conflict. However, it now appears that his involvement came at the request of the Firebird database project's leadership and a letter he wrote apparently supporting the database group's position has called his impartiality into question. Did ever officially accept Walther's offer to mediate and how important was his role?

Walther did help create some contact between some of the staff members and the database folks but I think that in most of the press stories I've seen his role has been inflated. I wouldn't read too much into that piece of email, either. He's just trying to mediate.

Some people have stated that they will no longer use Mozilla because of's handling of the dispute. Do you think that the conflict has damaged Mozilla's reputation?

A bit, sure. There's no denying that. Of course, I think that it has been damaged unnecessarily.

I'm also not sure how the database folks can feel that they have come away from this squeaky clean, either. They engaged in what I would consider to be some rude and obnoxious behaviour. I've actually got an IMAP folder now called 'hate-mail'. I've never had to have that before and I certainly don't feel that the reaction that was evoked was anywhere near in proportion to the supposed sin committed.

From a legal standpoint, how strong do you think's position is?

Strong. We've been dealing with laywers who work in trademark law for a living. Mitchell's statement goes into this a bit.

From an ethical and moral standpoint, which party can claim the high ground?

Neither of us can. We probably should have talked to the database folks first and their reaction was completely unreasonable.

The leaders of the Firebird database project have stated that they will sue if necessary and have even suggested that they may take action against related parties, such as MozillaZine and Linux vendors that distribute Mozilla. How serious do you think these legal threats are?

I'm not sure. Frankly, I think it would be a waste of their time and money and would spend any positive political or moral capital that they have left. If they are a litigious mood, they should really sue someone who is actually infringing as opposed to someone who have no interest in stepping on their trademark and have gone to great lengths to avoid doing so.

They have also been making demands to us that we get MozillaZine and other sites to stop using the Firebird name, apparently unaware that we have as little control over those sites as we do over theirs. I'm not sure that suing us to stop other people is a great strategy.

In retrospect, do you regret the decision to rename Phoenix to Firebird?

I don't know. It's certainly been a learning experience, that's for sure.

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