Trademarks for Freetards

[ music | Black Eyed Peas – Let’s Get Retarded ]

Ok, this is getting really stupid. One might classify it as retarded. In this Gobuntu non-free package list wiki page, Mozilla’s trademark policy is called “draconian”. I should point out to the Ubuntu crowd that Ubuntu’s trademark policy is incredibly similar, with nearly identical restrictions. And in a major blow to Debian fans, Debian has a trademark policy too. Both boil down to the following ideas:

  • The organization owns exclusive rights to the name in question with respect to computer software/operating systems (depending on how broadly they enforce the name, and how narrowly a court may restrict them).
  • You can make minor changes to the product and still call it by the trademarked name.
  • You may not in any way use that name for commercial purposes that could cause confusion. Forget about opening “Ubuntu In-Home PC Repair” or “Debian Computers Inc.”
  • If you’re not sure if you’re within these rules, ask.
  • If you break these rules, or your use of their name could start to cause confusion in the market, they can and will tell you to alter your practices or even cease using the name.

Why do they need these rules? Because a trademark is IDENTITY. These organizations, just like you and me, need to protect their names and reputations. If I start hawking “Debian Web Browser” that contains spyware, I am damaging Debian’s reputation. If I start giving away “Ubuntu OS” for free, and it’s just FreeDOS with Ubuntu branding, that’s trading on Ubuntu’s good name and can make people think I’m REALLY giving out Ubuntu, when I’m not.

And what about their permission to use it with minor changes? If I change the default bookmarks to my website, and give that away in Ubuntu, that’s nothing major. If I change the default wallpaper, and add my awesome new band’s music to the desktop, and add my really cool “Catapult” game that I wrote. That’s pretty minor. However, if I make the default wallpaper Tubgirl, change the bookmarks to porn sites, remove all networking, and make it turn on the PC speaker at top volume all the time, that’s going too far because I could make people think this is what these distributions are really like. Don’t you think Microsoft would love to be able to get away with trashing user expectations this way?

Well, Mozilla has the same rules. Debian went further than Mozilla was willing to allow, however. So, Mozilla said, “Let us look at your changes and we’ll think about it.” Debian handed the changes over in one giant monolithic patch, which is very difficult for one person to go over, because they have to reorganize it all themselves to really see what’s going on. Debian didn’t want to split it out into separate patches. Mozilla was willing to look at Debian’s changes, Debian wasn’t willing to meet Mozilla half way by making the changes easy to understand. An impasse arose. So Mozilla asked Debian to just stop using the Mozilla trademarks if they insisted on doing things their way. Mozilla can’t and wouldn’t try to stop Debian from redistributing their code changes, that’s what open source software is all about. Debian was well within their rights to keep their changes.

Luckily, for a long time the Mozilla code has had a simple compile time switch that enables you to turn off the trademarked branding and either use the generic branding, or your very own custom branding. It’s incredibly simple. The Debian devs had broken that option in all their changes. Let me repeat that. They broke that switch. The very thing that would make this dead simple THEY BROKE. This was the REAL CAUSE of the Debian outrage. They fucked up the branding switch, and it was hard to fix because they fucked it really well and it was going to be a fair bit of work to either fix it, or manually remove the branding.

Let me make my personal opinion of this clear. BOO-FUCKING-HOO. I guarantee you if I was distributing my own respin of Debian in which I broke Apache, Perl, bash, and set X to only run desktops rotated 180 degrees, Debian would pitch a royal fit, justifiably so. They tell me to stop calling it Debian. “Oh, well, that’s hard because I went through and hardcoded the name ‘Debian’ into all the places you see it now.” Debian wouldn’t care.

Trademarks are not copyrights. Trademarks don’t cover source code. You can build a 100% OSI-compliant build of Firefox from the public sources, and you can even pick to use the GPL, LGPL, or the MPL as your license of choice if you want to use and redistribute the code. But you can’t break stuff and call it Firefox. That’s someone else’s identity, and they’re not going to let you make it look bad.

And honestly, it’s not even a choice. It’s the law. Trademark law states that trademark holders must enforce their trademarks or they risk losing them forever. Ever ridden on an escalator, gone to a laundromat, or purchased anything made of nylon? Those were once trademarked terms, but they became so generic in use the holders lost their trademarks. Xerox very nearly lost their trademark, as have Kleenex, and Band-Aid. Adobe urges people not to say “photoshopped” and Google asks you to “search using Google” but not “to google”. Having your trademark become a verb is even worse than becoming a generic noun.

So the next time you want to freak out because an organization is protecting their trademark, try to remember that the code is still open source, they’re just protecting their identity. You wouldn’t like it if someone passed themselves off with your name, would you?

Yours truly, Asa Dotzler.


  1. Mark Pilgrim had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 3:33 am

    Great post, I agree with everything you wrote! 🙂

  2. glandium had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 4:32 am

    > Trademarks don’t cover source code. You can build a 100% OSI-compliant build of Firefox from the public sources, and you can even pick to use the GPL, LGPL, or the MPL as your license of choice if you want to use and redistribute the code.

    Except your artwork is NOT distributed under the GPL, the LGPL or the MPL ! That’s the point. You are enforcing your trademark with your copyright license. This is damn not required !

    As for the "they broke that switch" thing, I debunked it too many times to bother to cluebat you. I’ll only say this switch is useless, as there are a whole lot of hardcoded "Firefox".

  3. Grey had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 4:39 am

    No one said the artwork was going to be xPLed! The artwork isn’t CODE anyway, you don’t need it to build.

    Note, Debian’s art is the same way. Play by their rules or go away. I don’t see Ubuntu’s artwork under a public license either. So, that’s ok, but let’s hold Mozilla to different standards. Sure.

  4. Gavin Sharp had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 5:40 am

    glandium: "this switch is useless"? As far as I know, there are two cases where the brand is hardcoded: bugs 324758 and 336029. Not perfect, but certainly not useless. If you know of others, file them?

  5. Mook had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 6:07 am

    I actually had some IceWeasel branding lying around – see http://mook.moz.googlepages

    This happened, of course, after the Debian thing (heck, I just imported the Debian images – hey, it’s MPL/GPL/LGPL). And I use it on my local builds for Win32 and openSUSE, haven’t got a Debian machine :p

    The only things I’m aware of that doesn’t switch with that is the profile directory (~/.mozilla/firefox) and the X-remote topic (i.e. with iceweasel open, attempting to start firefox opens a second iceweasel window instead). I haven’t looked very hard though.

  6. James had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 7:21 am

    Grey: Unlike Mozilla, Debian regards its artwork not being under a free license to be a bug, and are working to fix it

  7. Kroc Camen had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 8:00 am

    Too true. This keeps me off of Linux. I went Mac to avoid this kind of R-tard politics. I wish you guys the best of luck with Firefox 3

  8. Hubu had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 1:14 pm

    Kroc: You gotta be kidding, right? You have absolutely NO rights to mess with ANY Apple stuff.

  9. Jesper Kristensen had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 1:33 pm

    What I like about Mozilla compared to other Open Source projects: It is about great software, not political messages.

  10. Kelly Clowers had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 1:44 pm

    Some days you just have to sit back and wonder how a supposedly open source company can be so utterly retarded.

    Mozilla, please get a clue how open source works!

    Kelly Clowers

  11. Michael Kaply had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 2:05 pm

    > I’ll only say this switch is useless, as
    > there are a whole lot of hardcoded
    > "Firefox".

    Where? Did you open bugs so they could be fixed? I wrote an extension that completely rebrands the browser and it changed every Firefox I could fine…

  12. Jeff Walden had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 4:14 pm

    "Except your artwork is NOT distributed under the GPL, the LGPL or the MPL ! That’s the point. You are enforcing your trademark with your copyright license."

    Would you rather Mozilla be disingenuous and distribute the artwork under licenses that can’t actually be used, because trademark requires stronger conditions than those licenses allow? As far as I can tell that’s what every other group with trademarked art is doing, and I think that’s completely bogus.

    Also, considering that Debian already has an exception for product identity by naming, I think not having an exception for product identity in graphics to be completely bogus.

  13. Jeff Walden had this to say,

    October 21, 2007 @ 4:15 pm

    Gah, lack of HTML sucks.

    [Sorry about that, fixed your comment though. -Grey]

  14. Al Billings had this to say,

    October 22, 2007 @ 1:35 am

    People here do realize that neither Asa nor anyone from Mozilla wrote this, right? This post is a fraud trolling to cause trouble.

  15. Grey had this to say,

    October 22, 2007 @ 1:38 am

    No, Al, but your sarcasmometer needs calibrated. See, My name is Grey Hodge. I’ve been volunteering and part of the community with Mozilla for nearly a decade now (yeah, think about that for a minute). I used Asa’s name there TO MAKE MY POINT, which flew miles above your head. However, I’m not a fraud nor a troll, you need to peek out of the cubicle more.

  16. Al Billings had this to say,

    October 22, 2007 @ 1:52 am

    I’m sorry that I missed the obvious (non-trolling, of course) wit of signing someone else’s name to your own thoughts. My bad. I’ll make sure to poke my head out of the cubicle more often. Thanks.

  17. Grey had this to say,

    October 22, 2007 @ 2:01 am

    Glad to hear it. Stop by the IRC server some time too. 🙂

  18. Bob had this to say,

    October 22, 2007 @ 4:15 am

    "nor anyone from Mozilla"

    I think that sums up the attitude of the average new MoCo employee to the Moz community unfortunately, if you’re not an employee you’re not part of Mozilla. 🙁

    As for the original post, I agree entirely.

  19. he98wt7gr9we had this to say,

    October 22, 2007 @ 4:34 am

    Why is this coming up again? Debian has changed the name to IceWeasel and included new icons, so this has been resolved, hasn’t it?

  20. Kim Sullivan had this to say,

    October 22, 2007 @ 11:52 am

    he98wt7gr9we: It’s coming up again due to the recent(?) Gobuntu release, to which Mark Pilgrim has responded on his blog… According to Robert Sayre (…) Mark’s spot contains a surprising "level of vitriol and negativity".

  21. Al Billings had this to say,

    October 22, 2007 @ 1:51 pm

    I’ve never worked with Grey nor heard his name mentioned. Since I am a new MoCo employee, I think it is fair to say that I don’t necessarily know everyone that has been involved in the community. I only know the people that I see day in and day out on IRC.

    So, it isn’t a matter of disrespect for the community as much as I simply didn’t recognize Grey and didn’t catch that he was signing Asa’s name as some sort of witty jest. It looked like yet another attempt to stir up controversy and troll(see the use of "Freetard" above) from someone who signed Asa’s name but was obviously not Asa.

    I certainly did not mean to nor do I plan to disrespect the involvement of people in the Mozilla Community who aren’t employees. If I felt that way, I wouldn’t be working in QA on Mozilla projects.

  22. Al Billings had this to say,

    October 22, 2007 @ 1:57 pm

    Oh, and for the record, is was late evening when I wrote my comment after a long day. I did actually mean to say "MoCo" instead of "Mozilla" as the context, to me, was that I thought someone was attempting to troll by making a statement as Asa, a MoCo employee. We’ve had a bit of trolling this week so I’m a little sensitive to that. I really didn’t notice that it was a jest on Grey’s part. He and I have discussed this in e-mail since then.

  23. Grey had this to say,

    October 22, 2007 @ 3:55 pm

    Indeed. I introduced myself to Al last evening, so everyone relax. He’s one of the many hard working folks at MoCo, who I am defending with this entire post. The fact they hold on to, and ensure the quality of, the Firefox trademark means they can employ people like Al here to make the product that much better. He has a history of browser work, and is obviously quite qualified, and we should be glad that something as simple as a trademark helps us ensure the quality of the product and brings benefits to everyone, devs, users, community members, and the OSS world as a whole.

    As he said, he’d never heard of me because I’ve been laying low the past couple years, and he’s new to our world. Cut him some slack, like I cut the rest of you losers a break. 😉

  24. Jonathan Watt had this to say,

    October 28, 2007 @ 2:15 pm

    So I had a look around, and it seems that the Debian people are managing small, logically atomic patches, and they are filing bugs in to track these. You can see the patches by going to:

    clicking on something Mozilla-ish (say "", or "nss"), clicking "Browse code", then navigating to debian/patches. Some of these are prefixed with bzXXXXXX indicating the bug number the patches have been added to/taken from.

  25. james had this to say,

    November 20, 2007 @ 8:12 am

    I saw your page at… and was wondering if you have seen http://www.FreePatentsOnlin… ? This site allows free patent searching, free PDF downloading, free alerts, and other account features such as sharing informaiton between users. I thought the link might be a good resource to add to your site.